Last week, Ecologist Stephen Davis was the guest speaker at the Greater Fort Myers Beach Area Chamber of Commerce’s monthly luncheon at Charley’s Boat House. Davis, who works for the Everglades Foundation, earned his PhD doing research on Everglades mangrove biogeochemistry, and his work at the Foundation includes Everglades restoration planning, which was his topic when he spoke to Chamber members last week.
“It took us 100 years to get where we are – where our water is so mismanaged,” Davis began, beginning a presentation with brightly colored slides depicting how water used to flow south through the River of Grass. “We’re getting the same amount of rainfall we’ve always had, we just no longer have the ecosystem to support it.”
Davis explained how the Army Corps of Engineers use the Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule to determine how much water to send downstream and when, and that LORS is itself based on rainfall predictions.
“When large amounts of freshwater are released, the habitats are immediately effected as the oyster beds can’t adjust to a rapid drop in salinity,” Davis said. “The seagrass beds either – they need salinity levels in a certain range plus a lot of light. Since so many species of fish and other creatures depend on these habitats for survival, they are critical to the health of our estuaries. The oysters also stabilize the bottom of Estero Bay – if they aren’t there, all the nutrient-laden water sits in the estuaries and stew after the releases subside. Since the Gulf of Mexico has very low tidal energy, this causes algae blooms and tons of red drift algae wash up on the beach long after the excessive releases have stopped. It can also take some fisheries such as snook and redfish as long as 10 years to recover.”
Davis talked about other effects of the runoff from the Caloosahatchee watershed and the Lake Okeechobee releases, but one thing we were surprised to learn is what’s happening to the area that used to get that fresh water – Florida Bay.
“In 2015, Florida Bay got no fresh water at all – the first time this has happened in 30 years,” he said. “The result of that and all the years of getting very little is that there is now a 9 square mile area – 50,000 acres – where there is no life at all, and Florida Bay now has salinity levels twice that of the Dead Sea.”
What makes this happen is that when the seagrass beds die, they decompose – a process that leaches oxygen from the water, creating a ‘dead zone’.
“Florida Bay has had some freshwater since, but that area is still expanding,” Davis said. “Even the very-salt tolerant mangroves are dying, and its gotten people who live in the Florida Keys very angry.”
Like many other scientists, Davis said that the key to changing all of this is to build more reservoirs to store and treat water to send it south and outlined some of the projects in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), explaining how they all fit together like a puzzle.
An interesting point was made by Chamber President Bud Nocera, who noted that all of this is tied up in politics – as it is our legislators at the state and federal level that are the only ones who can secure funding for these projects.
“We have an election coming up in November,” he said. “Have you identified who will do the right thing should we elect them this fall?”
Kimberly Mitchell, representing the Everglades Trust, took the podium from Davis and said that her organization has been very impressed with Heather Fitzenhagen, a Republican representing the Florida House of Representatives in District 78.
“This is not just about the environment – it’s about the economic vitality of Southwest Florida,” Mitchell said.
Since Fort Myers Beach is not in District 78 – an area which does include all of Fort Myers and a large portion of Lee County – Nocera asked her who island voters should be following, and Mitchell replied that a voters guide would be up on the Everglades Trust’s website when campaigning begins in earnest later this summer.
Note to readers: our island is in District 76 for the Florida House, a seat currently occupied by Ray Rodrigues; District 27 (previously 30) in the Florida Senate, Lizbeth Benacquisto; District 19 in the U.S. Congress– Curt Clawson; and Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio in the United States Senate. Pay special attention to election coverage in the coming months as all of these seats are up for re-election in November.
Keri Hendry Weeg