The Keys is a place that is unique, drawing visitors from every point on the globe who come to experience the world-class sport fishing, boating and sailing, diving and scuba in the crystal clear waters of Florida Bay.
For those who grew up here in South Florida, their childhood memories are rich with days spent exploring the mangrove forests of the Everglades on kayaks and canoes, and many are lucky enough to have known the thrill of landing redfish, tarpon or snook.
Connected to the Florida mainland by a single two-lane highway that can be bumper to bumper even on a good day, the Keys can be challenging to get to, but difficult to leave and impossible to forget.
We don’t know how many people visited the Keys by car or boat, but according to statistics compiled by the Key West Travel Guide, more than 366,000 arrived at Key West International Airport in 2016, another 93,947 landed on the Key West ferry and there were 696,000 cruise ship passengers.
Each of them spent their dollars here, and many — just like in years before — will return to buy homes and condominiums from Key Largo to Key West as their reward for lives well lived elsewhere.
Yet all of it is at risk.
Florida Bay now gets just one-third of the fresh water that once naturally flowed south from Lake Okeechobee through the River of Grass, past the mangrove forests and into the bay. The rest has been diverted for use by agriculture and the 8 million people who now populate South Florida.
Tragically, though, billions of gallons of excess fresh water has been wasted: flushed nto the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
In the estuaries of both our coasts, this untreated, nutrient-rich runoff has caused outbreaks of an unsightly, smelly blue-green algae that is toxic to humans and wildlife alike. Last year alone, the algae forced a state of emergency that closed beaches and restricted fishing for 242 days. For two years out of the last three, it forced families with young children to abandon their homes, and was so noxious that marina workers had to wear breathing apparatus.
While the coastal estuaries are suffering from too much fresh water, here in the Keys, the problem is too little.
Florida Bay is literally dying of thirst. As every fishing guide along the Keys can tell you, the lack of fresh water has altered salinity levels, killing off tens of thousands of acres of seagrass where the Bay’s champion sport fish spawn and feed.
As the seagrass dies, so do the sport fish that make Florida Bay the premiere sport fishing location on the continent. Later, as the seagrass disintegrates, it is replaced by bacteria — algae — that turns the crystal clear waters of the Bay into a cloudy pea soup.
Anglers don’t travel to a place without sport fish. Boaters and divers don’t spend their time looking at an ugly, cloudy mass that looks like dirty dishwater. And people don’t want homes looking out on a dying Florida Bay.
That’s what’s at stake for all of us who love the Keys: virtually everything that makes this place special.
For decades, scientists have known that the solution to the problems of Florida Bay is the same one they have prescribed for the Caloosahatchee and the Indian rivers: greater water storage south of Lake Okeechobee.
Instead of flushing billions of gallons of untreated water into our coastal estuaries, scientists from dozens of universities and government agencies have pleaded with the state and federal governments to build a major water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. It’s purpose: To hold these billions of gallons of Lake Okeechobee overflow so it can be gradually released south, cleansed in the Everglades and in man-made wetlands, and then released into the Bay.
Sadly, in fits and starts, this solution has eluded us for decades – but things may be changing.
This Session of the Florida Legislature represents our best hope to move forward. Senate President Joe Negron, together with Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Thad Altman and others, are leading the fight to invest Amendment 1 land conservation monies to buy the land to build the reservoir and send the water south.
There’s a lot at stake for folks along the Keys, and their legislation – Senate Bill 10 and its companion, House Bill 761 — deserves our full support.
Eric Eikenberg is chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation.