Explained: Florida Bay and Everglades Restoration

Species such as redfish used to be a top sight-fishing target in Florida Bay. These days, they’re tough to spot in cloudy water on the flats. Anglers have a better shot of blind-casting under mangrove overhangs to hookup.
Courtesy Columbia Sportswear

Some call it the birthplace of skinny water sight fishing. Others just know it as Florida Bay. But for those anglers who got to experience the bay during its heyday, there was nothing like it. Even in the early 1990s, fishing was out of this world.

“You could leave Flamingo Marina, turn left, and head straight to Snake or Garfield Bight and start fishing in minutes,” says Florida’s Capt. Chris Wittman. “From Snake Bight to Whipray Basin had some of the cleanest waters, meadows of turtle grass just crowded with snook, redfish, tarpon and bonefish.”

But centuries of draining the Everglades had staggering consequences. The natural flow of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades, Everglades National Park and Florida Bay became nothing more than a trickle. Development and agriculture near Lake Okeechobee sucked up the vital water like a shop vac, a practice that continues today. The river of grass is unrecognizable.

“Fresh water is absolutely necessary to balance the salinity of Florida Bay,” explains Wittman. “Imagine the basins and shallow waters of Florida Bay as an ice cube tray with high and low spots. Water can’t always leave those low spots with the tide, so water evaporates and leaves those areas hypersaline — three times saltier than the Gulf of Mexico.”

In order for Florida Bay to thrive, fresh water must make its way from Lake Okeechobee south through the Everglades to the bay.
Courtesy Captains For Clean Water

In 2015, another catastrophic die-off of seagrass occurred (yes, there’s been more than one over the years in Florida Bay). Acres of grass shed its blades, leaving the excess nutrients to rot in the water. Algae blooms — a saltwater cyanobacteria — turned the water green. The green water spread to many different areas, blocking out the sun and preventing seagrass growth.

Florida Bay is a shell of what it should be. The bay gets muddy from any wind event. The silt doesn’t settle quickly, something past seagrass beds could clean in a couple tide cycles. Beyond fishing, seagrass is an essential habit for countless species and a food source for manatees. “One acre of seagrass sequesters as much carbon as one acre of rainforest,” points out Wittman. “Losing 50 acres of seagrass is a huge loss because of its value as a carbon sink.”

Even with Florida Bay in its current condition, Wittman emphatically points out that answers are available to bring it back to life. Scientists have studied the causes and know the solutions. In 2000, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) — meant to restore, preserve, and protect the South Florida ecosystem — was signed into law. But either the funds were allocated elsewhere, or some other hurdle stopped the many projects from starting or being completed. Politicians always seemed to have other priorities, driven by different interests.

In 2016, Wittman helped found Captains for Clean Water because he was tired of Florida’s poor water management practices. “Nothing was completed before 2016, but since then, 40 of the 68 CERP Everglades projects have been started or completed,” says Wittman.

Capt. Chris Wittman, of Captains for Clean Water, is on a mission to do whatever it takes to help cleanup Florida’s embattled waters.
Courtesy Columbia Sportswear

First, the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) had to be updated. LOSOM dictates how Lake Okeechobee’s water is managed. “The Army Corps came up with a new plan — and while it’s not perfect, I consider it shared adversity among the many stakeholders — it’s still better than what it was in 2008,” says Wittman. “The new manual has a 37 percent reduction in discharges of polluted water to the coasts, and three times as much water sent south to Florida Bay.”

In 2023, the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) broke ground on the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir, ideally located at the south end of the EAA. This cornerstone project reduces harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers by storing and cleaning excess water from the lake before sending it south to the Everglades.

“Lake Okeechobee is polluted with legacy pollutants from agriculture,” explains Wittman. “This 25-foot deep reservoir, along with a Storm Treatment Area that’s almost completed, will act as a man-made wetland. Its footprint is larger than Manhattan. The 16,500 acres will store, filter and clean water headed to Florida Bay.”

The reservoir is not expected to be completed until 2029, so public involvement is vital to Florida Bay and Everglades restoration, says Wittman. “It forces politicians to stay honest and to keep projects moving forward.” That’s why you’ll continue to hear plenty from Captains for Clean Water, and the army of national fishing brands that have joined this fight, to bring world-class sight-fishing back to Florida.

The post Explained: Florida Bay and Everglades Restoration appeared first on Salt Water Sportsman.

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