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Greens back Cockburn port
06 January 2017, The West Australian (Australia)
The WA Greens have thrown their weight behind a new port in Cockburn Sound, declaring a belief that it could be built without unacceptable environmental damage.
Greens MLC Lynn MacLaren said the proposed location was in the middle of the Kwinana industrial strip, which had been the site of industry and dredging for decades.
“The Greens have a long history of advocating for the health and marine life of Cockburn Sound and we continue to be the loudest political voices calling for their protection from unsuitable development,” Ms MacLaren said.
“Seagrass in Cockburn Sound must be protected — but the sound’s healthiest seagrass beds, which the Greens want protected, are in the south of Cockburn Sound at Mangles Bay, and on the east side of Garden Island — not on the Kwinana industrial strip.”
The announcement signals the environmental movement may be willing to accept a Cockburn Sound port as a trade-off for protecting the Beeliar wetlands from Roe Highway stage 8.
Opposition Leader Mark McGowan said on Wednesday that Labor would scrap the Roe 8 project if elected in March.
Ms MacLaren said about 85 per cent of the sound’s original seagrass had been lost, and to date no one had been able to fully successfully regrow it.
“It is therefore important we protect seagrass where it is growing and only allow new development in areas where seagrass has been removed,” she said.
“This is why the Greens strongly oppose an ALP and Liberal-backed, environmentally destructive proposal for a marina and canal estate in Mangles Bay which will destroy many hectares of seagrass, while calling for investigations to be progressed into building the outer harbour.”
The Greens’ announcement came as Mr McGowan continued to spruik his position in the northern suburbs, announcing that $125 million would be reallocated from the Perth Freight Link budget to fund two new overpasses and extended dual carriageway for Wanneroo Road.
Shadow transport minister Rita Saffioti accused the Government of “making up” estimates of 3360 jobs lost as a result of the Roe 8 cancellation.
“We saw the Deputy Premier go out and claim the cancelling of Roe 8 would cost over 3300 jobs, yet the Government’s own media statements released on this project last year, show that the project was going to create 400 to 500 jobs,” she said.
Treasurer Mike Nahan was forced to backtrack on the statement by Acting Premier Liza Harvey yesterday, saying the whole Perth Freight Link, including Roe 8 and Roe 9 projects, amounted to 3360 more jobs.
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05 Jan 2017, Texas Observer (USA)
How a felon with a fake name convinced a federal agency and the Texas General Land Office to fast-track a controversial project in Port Aransas.
When Mike Edwards walked into the Corpus Christi office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers one June afternoon in 2014, he came prepared. His task: convince six state and federal agencies, including the Army Corps and the Texas General Land Office, to sign off on a plan to build a barge mooring facility in an ecologically sensitive part of the Texas coast.
He was flanked by two towboat captains and state Representative Todd Hunter, whose district includes Port Aransas. Hunter is also a powerful lieutenant of Texas House Speaker Joe Straus. The problem, Edwards and his crew told the agencies’ representatives, was that the Port of Corpus Christi had gotten so busy that barges were backed up. While waiting for room at the port, they were idling in Lydia Ann Channel, a small pass tucked just inside San Jose Island on the bay side of Port Aransas. The barges, they said, were nosing up on the shoreline, running their engines and killing seagrass. The proposed temporary mooring facility would stretch for a mile and a half and keep the barges tied up in deeper water, away from the shoreline and off the seagrass.
As a sales pitch, the meeting evidently worked wonders. Six months later, in January 2015, Lydia Ann Channel Moorings LLC had its permit from the Army Corps and a lease from the General Land Office (GLO), which owns submerged lands along the coast. The Army Corps allowed Edwards and his partners to skip public notice and an environmental assessment, even though the project lies within a state scientific area and hosts several endangered species. As salty Port Aransans would quickly point out, Lydia Ann Channel lies within casting distance of an extensive black mangrove estuary made up of tidal channels and flats popular with fishermen stalking redfish, speckled trout and flounder.
For months, Edwards and the principals in the company — his son-in-law Todd Pietsch and Bryan Gulley, an orthodontist and well-known local developer — pressured the Army Corps to fast-track their application. In July 2014, when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department asked how they planned to protect seagrass that might be affected by the development, Edwards told them in an email there was “NO sea grass.” When a member of the towing industry wrote to the Corps expressing worry about the facility’s effect on other ships and barges passing through the channel, he called the man to convince him otherwise.
But not all was as it seemed. Edwards and his crew would violate the terms of their permit by building a large-scale docking operation, more elaborate than the one they’d pitched the Corps. And Mike Edwards wasn’t actually Mike Edwards. His real name is Everett Michael Skipper, and Everett Michael Skipper has a rap sheet.
For most of the 2000s, Skipper was a wheeler-dealer in the construction business in Corpus Christi. He functioned as a one-man shop for putting together bars and nightclubs, including Aria Sky Terrace & Lounge, a swanky downtown spot owned by Pietsch.
Skipper took on the role of designer, construction manager, government liaison and all-around problem-solver for these projects, drawing up the plans for the businesses himself and then paying a local engineer to rubber-stamp them. He almost never had employees of his own, choosing instead to hire subcontractors paid off the books.
But Skipper’s business came to an abrupt halt in 2007 when he was rounded up in a bribery sting. Desperate to get a new nightclub opened in time for a highly anticipated baseball game, Skipper gave a city inspector a small Red Bull refrigerator and offered a fire marshal an airline ticket to Hawaii. The fire marshal refused, but the incident brought federal agents knocking on Skipper’s door. A probe would later reveal that not only did Skipper try to bribe city officials, he had signed off on a fire protection permit using his alias, Mike Edwards. The name, he would tell investigators, was his DJ name, which he had used since 1976.
In 2009, Skipper pleaded guilty to bribery. Though he was now a felon, Skipper wasn’t deterred from hustling new business. He just made sure to keep his real name off the paperwork. Though Skipper coordinated behind the scenes with officials at the Army Corps, Pietsch and Gulley signed the Army Corps permit and the GLO lease.
When the Observer told GLO staff in a meeting in October that Edwards’ real name was Everett Michael Skipper and that he was a felon, the room fell silent. An attorney for the agency said it doesn’t conduct background checks or look into the personal histories of applicants.
Still, if officials with the Corps or GLO were curious about Mike Edwards, all they had to do was Google his name.
“Whether caused by incompetence, the good-ol-boy system, apathy, agency capture, corruption, or hostility toward environmental regulatory obligations,” the Port Aransans claim in their lawsuit, permitting the facility was “a grand mistake.”
On a Friday evening in Port Aransas, retirees cruise the streets on golf carts and fishermen returning from a day on the water stop at one of the many cook-your-catch joints for dinner. A beach town lined with bait stands and seafood joints, Port Aransas takes its salty living seriously.
In 2015, when folks in Port Aransas noticed barges with construction cranes in Lydia Ann Channel, there was an uproar. Residents quickly organized, set up a Facebook group and began looking into their legal options. Many of them had grown up in Port Aransas or spent summers in the area, fishing, kayaking and duck hunting. The sight of large metal pilings being driven aground in the channel upset them.
“I’ve spent countless hours going up and down the shoreline with my friends, fishing, catching bait or crab,” said Aldo Dyer, a spokesperson for Friends of Lydia Ann Channel. “This is not a collection of tree-hugging environmentalists like some people want to allege. … It’s people who want to see what we experienced as kids preserved.”
A young oil and gas attorney, Dyer was also upset that he and the others had never received so much as a notice that Lydia Ann Channel Moorings was planning on building a barging facility. In 2015, Dyer and a handful of wealthy Port Aransans formed the Friends of Lydia Ann Channel, and put up about $350,000 to hire an Austin law firm and sue the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps, they allege, used “an improper and hurried process” reserved for noncontroversial projects to permit the facility, and grossly failed to protect the Lydia Ann Channel. In court the group would discover that the Corps had decided the project was “minor” because the company had claimed it was a “temporary” facility and therefore didn’t require public notice or an environmental review.
At one point, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wrote to the Corps pointing out that the area around the facility is home to marine mammals and sea turtles and recommending that the company set up a monitoring program. The agency also suggested that the company “compensate for the potential impacts to seagrass beds in the immediate project vicinity.”
Seagrass prevents erosion, improves water quality and provides a habitat for marine life from plankton to gamefish; uprooting it in protected areas is illegal under Texas law. But when the Corps passed on the recommendations to Skipper, he responded “there are NO sea grass’ [sic] in location of moorings to be installed” and ignored the suggestion to set up a monitoring program. The Corps didn’t pursue the point either. In fact, some within the Corps were apparently in such a rush to get the mooring facility permitted that they didn’t wait for their colleagues to weigh in.
By about mid-January, officials in the regulatory department had grown impatient with the Corps’ operations division, which was looking into whether the facility would obstruct ship traffic.
“The applicant has been very patient” and we “owe the applicant a permit decision,” one regulatory division staff member wrote.
Kim McLaughlin, the Corps’ regulatory section chief in Galveston, chimed in too.
“We need to move out on this,” she wrote. “Please provide a response ASAP otherwise we will make a permit decision mid-week.”
A few days later, McLaughlin approved the permit before the operations department provided their sign-off.
The Corps declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing litigation. However, in a blistering review of the events produced after the federal lawsuit was filed, Army Corps Col. Lars Zetterstrom blamed Lydia Ann Channel Moorings for misleading the agency. He wrote that the company “failed to accurately describe the scope of its operations,” which resulted in “an inappropriately narrow scope of review.”
To complicate matters, the official story is full of small but crucial contradictions. On the most basic facts, the government agencies, Port Aransas residents and Lydia Ann Channel Moorings can’t seem to agree.
For example, the GLO denies that the facility is in the Redfish Bay State Scientific Area, a zone designated by the state to protect seagrass from being uprooted. But a spokesperson for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which established the area, confirmed to the Observer that most of the facility falls inside the scientific area.
Another major point of contention is how long the barges had been disturbing the Lydia Ann Channel and whether the company was behind the activity. The Port Aransas residents argue that the company “fraudulently created the ‘industry practice’ of grounding barges on the banks of the channel” and used it “as an environmental bête noir [sic] to obtain exemptions from environmental laws.”
“I firmly believe these guys were calling their buddies and saying, ‘Start nosing up here,’” said David Smith, an attorney for the group of Port Aransas residents suing the Corps. If the court issues an injunction and stops the company from operating, “They’re going to say, ‘Start pushing up again,’” Smith said. “That’s BS on so many different levels.”
Skipper and Gulley’s most effective strategy was to present the project as an environmental savior. In meetings and conversations, they emphasized that barges were already haphazardly pushing up against the shoreline and said that a docking facility would help keep the barges organized and tied up away from the shore.
The strategy worked. The GLO, for instance, still claims the goal of the fleeting project is to “reduce the impact on seagrass.” The agency told the Observer that it received several calls from concerned citizens, but it wasn’t able to provide any record of those calls.
On the other hand, longtime residents of Port Aransas say they only started seeing barges about a year or two before the company proposed the facility. Their suspicion is that Skipper, Gulley and Pietsch used their connections to fast-track the project and avoid public scrutiny. Dyer, for one, is convinced that there was backroom dealing that helped Gulley and Skipper seal the deal on the lease, though he has no concrete evidence to prove it.
Still, Gulley is well-connected. He served on the Corpus Christi economic development board and has been a regular contributor to local and state elected officials. Gulley gave $1,000 to Land Commissioner George P. Bush in 2014. Since 2010, he’s given state Representative Todd Hunter about $8,000. Hunter attended the crucial June 2014 meeting and voiced his support for the project, though his involvement otherwise is unknown. (Hunter did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Gulley had worked with the GLO in 2010 and 2012 to secure leases in Corpus and was likely familiar with staff at the agency. He was also a fishing buddy and friend of Rene Garcia, a GLO field biologist. Garcia at one point signed off on a noncompliance notice sent to the company, but the GLO told the Observer that it was incidental and that he will be precluded from work involving Gulley’s leases.
In an emailed statement sent through a public relations firm, Todd Pietsch told the Observer that Skipper “in no way lobbied anyone to fast-track the project” and that the crime his father-in-law committed nine years ago “is completely unrelated and irrelevant to the Lydia Ann Channel project.”
Pietsch said his group evaluated 10 potential sites for the docking facility before settling on the Lydia Ann Channel site because it satisfied several criteria for barge and environmental safety. If the facility were shut down, “the livelihoods of 29 employees is [sic] at risk” he said, and “the practice of grounding barges against the shorelines of Lydia Ann Channel would begin again immediately.”
In September 2016, in response to the lawsuit, the Army Corps revoked the facility’s permit for “not accurately” describing the scope of the operation and misleading the agency about “the underlying need for the project from a public interest review perspective.” Soon after, the GLO told the company its lease was in default and could be terminated immediately.
However, the fleeting facility is still operating. The company has also secured another lease for land on the other side of the channel from the Aransas County Navigation District, but claims that it doesn’t plan to construct another fleeting facility there.
At a November hearing, Judge Janis Graham Jack, the federal judge presiding over the case, seemed annoyed with the Corps for not stopping the company from operating, calling the agency’s defense “a circular argument of the most bizarre.”
“So, who is in charge of them doing this?” she asked the attorney for the Corps. “I mean, [the company’s] whole argument is that, ‘It’s already here, so don’t mess with it.’ … What is the point? I’m still not understanding the point of the permitting process.”
The Corps has told the company that it can still reapply for a fresh permit, and the company is working with the Corps in an attempt to re-permit the facility, this time posting a public notice and conducting a more thorough environmental review. Its attorney made the case at the hearing that if the facility were removed, barges would once again begin grounding into the shoreline.
At best, Dyer and Smith say, Skipper and the rest of his crew hoodwinked state and federal agencies, manipulating the process to suit their needs. At worst, the agencies willingly helped the company sidestep environmental and administrative process laws. The truth, however, might lie somewhere in between.
“These guys from the moorings company are very defiant,” said Dyer. “They took the shortcut, they got the cheap lease, they thought they were clever. They didn’t count on local citizens and homeowners and everybody here getting organized.”
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Department of State and Foreign Diplomats Help Restore Chesapeake Bay Underwater Seagrass
04 January 2017, Newsroom America (USA)
As part of the Department of State’s Greening Diplomacy Initiative (GDI), representatives from twelve foreign embassies, the World Bank, the Office of Foreign Missions (OFM), and the Office of Oceans, Environment and Science (OES) will work together to grow and plant underwater seagrass in the Potomac River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, in support of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Grasses for the Masses program.
The project, called “Restore the Bay,” will launch January 10, 2017, in Washington, D.C., when representatives from the embassies of China, Costa Rica, Finland, Germany, Indonesia, Iraq, Malta, Pakistan, Slovenia, Somalia, Spain, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, the World Bank, GDI, OFM, and OES attend a training workshop provided by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Embassy representatives will learn to grow underwater seagrasses, which they will then continue to grow in their chanceries over the next several months.
The project will culminate on June 5, 2017, in celebration of World Environment Day, when participating foreign embassies will join representatives from the Department of State and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation at Mason Neck State Park in Lorton, Virginia, to plant their underwater grasses in the Potomac River.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation reports that underwater grasses growing in shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay add oxygen to the water, provide wildlife with food and habitat, absorb nutrient pollution, trap sediment and reduce erosion.
The Department of State aims to raise awareness of global water challenges by highlighting local efforts at city and state levels, such as the “Restore the Bay” event. U.S. embassies and consulates overseas routinely participate in local sustainability activities in host countries to showcase America’s support for environmental stewardship. Working with foreign embassies in Washington, D.C. is an extension of the Department’s global drive to advance ecological protection through eco-diplomacy.
For more information about the “Restore the Bay” project, visit the OFM website at http://www.state.gov/ofm/greeningdiplomacy/restorethebay/.
For information about the Office of Foreign Missions (OFM), visit the OFM website at http://www.state.gov/ofm/.
For information about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Grasses for the Masses program, please visit: http://www.cbf.org/grasses.
If you are interested in attending the training workshop in Washington, D.C. on January 10, 2017, or for any interview requests, please contact: Aaron Testa at TestaAM@state.gov or call 571-345-2504.
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Replumbing South Florida
03 January 2017, Fly Rod & Reel Magazine (USA)
After heavy rains last winter the Army Corps of Engineers protected cattle ranchers, dairy farmers and sugarcane growers in Lake Okeechobee’s watershed by dumping their polluted water on distant residents of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The massive, nutrient-laden torrent was vented east down the Saint Lucie River toward Stuart and west through the Caloosahatchee River toward Fort Myers and Sanibel Island.
Atypical only in severity, the diversion added to the ongoing devastation of two sprawling estuaries vital to fish, shellfish, corals, birds and marine mammals. This time at least 161 cities suffered, many blighted by blooms of toxic cyanobacteria (misleadingly called “blue-green algae”) that kills aquatic life as it nears salt water. Victims include fish like tarpon that push through the floating poison to breathe air and ecosystem-supporting baitfish like toadfish, gobies, pilchards, pinfish, mullet, silversides and anchovies that can’t quickly vacate poisoned areas. What’s more, the regular slugs of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee have killed seagrass, free-ranging shellfish and oysters that filter out pollutants and provide food and habitat for fish. Recovery takes years.
Cyanobacteria also creates fumes toxic to humans. Some residents, especially those with small children, had to evacuate their homes. By summer toxic levels near Stuart, located on Florida’s east coast, were 1,700 times the safe-exposure level. A state of emergency existed in Martin County. Swimming, fishing and paddling were banned.
The recreational-fishing industry in the affected area has been devastated. According to Captains for Clean Water, a nonprofit group started by fishing guides Dan Andrews and Chris Wittman, areas that had been paved with oyster bars and lush turtle grass are now biological deserts.
In August Mike Conner, a fly-fishing guide based in Stuart, told me: “I do quite a bit of guiding for snook, tarpon and [spotted sea] trout in the Saint Lucie. When these discharges happen, I have to fish elsewhere. Now I’m sight fishing for snook in the outside surf. We lost our oysters and seagrass. We’ve got dolphins swimming the wrong way. I wouldn’t touch a fish out of the estuary, much less eat one. I’ve been here 20 years and seen six or seven of these events. The one in 2013 was horrible, and this one has far exceeded that. They’ve done a real number on tourism.”
Recently Conner presented an invoice to the Army Corps of Engineers for income he’d lost from dumps of Lake Okeechobee water. Of course, the Corps refused to pay. He then publicized these gross violations of the Clean Water Act on TV and on an environmental website called bullsugar.org.
“It looked like someone poured radiator fluid into the water,” said marine scientist Dr. Grant Gilmore, president of Estuarine, Coastal and Ocean Science, Inc. “It’s happened before, and no one has done anything about it. This has been the worst I’ve seen. The Saint Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon sustain the most diverse fishery in the United States, and it’s getting pounded by the lake. I can go to the middle of Saint Lucie Inlet, draw a 10-mile circle, and I’ll have 800 species—everything from largemouth bass to red drum to billfish.”
The Florida Peninsula runs north and south, so temperate fish come down and tropical fish come up. Bonefish, for example, mingle with striped bass and Atlantic sturgeon. Gilmore has discovered and named new species; and he’s trying to get others, like the opossum pipefish, protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“The loss of seagrass has been catastrophic,” Gilmore continued. “That was the habitat that supported most life. Then there’s this group of fish that need fresh water. We have five species of snook: common snook—the largest—swordspine snook, tarpon snook, large-scale fat snook and small-scale fat snook. The four smaller ones need fresh water for most of their life cycles, then they migrate to the mouths of rivers to spawn. So with major deterioration of fresh water, they’re in big trouble.”
The hydrological “improvements” that allow the Corps to dump pollution generated by residents of the Lake Okeechobee watershed on residents of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts started with the 30-foot-high, 143-mile-long Hoover Dike, which girdles the lake and was completed by the Corps in 1967. It desiccated a huge portion of the Everglades, attracting an invasion by the sugarcane industry—the main factor in reducing the Everglades footprint by 50 percent. To protect that industry, the Corps gutterized the Saint Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers, turning them into drainage canals to vent Okeechobee’s water east and west. Whenever the lake floods, the Corps flushes it like a toilet.
Four years after completion of the Hoover Dike, the Corps finished “improving” the lake’s main water source, the Kissimmee River, by slicing out its meanders and converting it to a lifeless ditch so that its water, polluted by the beef and dairy industries, shot unsettled and unfiltered into the lake.
Before this replumbing, rainwater collected in aquifers and wetlands that filtered out sediments, sucked up phosphorus and nitrogen, and gradually recharged the Kissimmee. Then the winding, unimproved river and its flourishing pickerelweed and sawgrass continued the cleansing process. Soft, sweet water flowed into the lake, Everglades and, finally, Florida Bay.
Okeechobee’s natural exhalations were as beneficial as its inhalations, because neither lasted long. In dry years organic muck decomposed, burned and blew away. When shallows flooded, there was an explosion of native vegetation and insect larvae that provided cover and food for fish, frogs, turtles, salamanders, alligators and birds. When the insects exited their larval skins and took wing, the storm of protein recharged songbirds exhausted by spring and fall migrations.
In 2011 Everglades Foundation board member Gary Lickle flew me over the remains of the Kissimmee River in his 900-pound Carbon Cub floatplane. I was sickened to see how the 103-mile river had been forced into a 50-mile straightjacket that destroyed its fish, wildlife, wetlands and magic—even the magic of the name. (The Corps had renamed the Kissimmee “C-38.”) This “improvement” cost taxpayers $35 million.
But as we flew north, some of the natural river reappeared and with it wetlands, fish, alligators, frogs, turtles and birds. Sitting directly behind Lickle, I apprehensively controlled the tiny plane with a single stick protruding between my knees. We were so low we could see much of the new life.
This was the result of still more Corps work. Having seen what C-38 did to the lake and estuaries, Congress hired the Corps to undo a bit of its previous work by reinserting some of the river’s meanders. The partial fix, which supposedly will be finished in 2019, will cost taxpayers $1 billion. Only 44 miles of the original 103-mile channel will be restored, because there are too many new floodplain residents to the south; and to the north Disney World wants to be able to dump floodwater quickly.
Over Lake Okeechobee we saw long, brown swaths—dead cattails herbicided by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. While cattails are native, they become invasive when phosphorus concentrations regularly exceed 20 parts per billion. Upstream pollution, combined with the Kissimmee’s compromised filtering capacity, sends about 450 tons of phosphorus into the lake each year (three times higher than the goal); so cattails and other nutrient-loving plants are reducing biodiversity there and in the Everglades. We flew so low I could see fish, turtles, birds and alligators—even the rouge stains of exotic apple-snail eggs on plant stems.
Ten years earlier I’d found the lake in ecological squalor, whipped up by hurricanes and so dirty that when I inserted my hand, it disappeared from sight. Midges and shad, two of the most important food-chain foundations, were essentially gone. Midge larvae had dropped from around 10,000 per square meter to two (not 2,000—two). With scant light penetration, plankton had died out and with it planktivorous shad and the crappie fishery. Gone, too, were bulrushes and other important aquatic vegetation.
At this writing the lake is in relatively good shape. “The low water you saw in 2011 has allowed vegetation to respond,” said state fisheries biologist Don Fox. “High water is OK if you have moderate or low levels now and then. Midges, shad and bulrushes are recovering. The lake’s not back the way it was in the 1980s, but it’s better. Manatees and snook are coming and going. Good stringers of crappies are being caught. One guy I know went out the other morning and caught 40 bass.”
The estimated annual value of the lake’s recreational fishery is now $225 million. And virtually all fishing is in the marshy western third where phosphorus is less than 10 ppb, like the most pristine sections of the Everglades. Vegetation and bait abound.
But the open two-thirds of the lake sits atop a deep layer of polluted mud; and that’s the water that gets dumped into the Saint Lucie and Caloosahatchee canals. The next big rain event and hurricane will churn up the bottom again, and vegetation will die, the lake fishery will crash and the estuaries will get another dose of poison. (In October Hurricane Matthew remained far enough off the coast that Florida didn’t get enough wind or rain to degrade Lake Okeechobee. A post-storm survey of submerged plants—the ones that get uprooted the worst—revealed no change.)
The replumbed lake devastates Florida Bay, and for the exact opposite reason it devastates the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Instead of dying from too much water, the bay is dying from too little. The Everglades, that “river of grass,” no longer gets a natural flow. And some of the flow it does get is blocked by the Tamiami Trail, a canal and a system of levees.
With little fresh water, the bay now serves as a giant evaporating basin. Warm blankets of very salty water settle into basins. Hot, hypersaline conditions dramatically reduce the water’s capacity to hold dissolved oxygen. Algae clogs and kills the loggerhead sponges that used to filter out pollutants. Seagrass dies, and the decaying process consumes even more dissolved oxygen. Fish kills are routine.
According to Dr. Stephen Davis, a wetlands ecologist with the Everglades Foundation, Florida Bay has lost about 50,000 acres of seagrass, and the die-off is expanding. “On days you couldn’t catch anything you could always catch spotted sea trout,” he said. “Now you can’t even catch them.”
Florida Bay used to offer some of the Sunshine State’s finest sight fishing for redfish, but with the seagrass die-off that’s mostly over. Peter Frezza, a light-tackle fishing guide and Audubon biologist, still chases redfish but over sterile, sand bottom. According to Frezza: “You can see huge schools. That’s exciting; but you might only get one shot. With no cover, they’ve gotten real sensitive. It’s a lot harder to fish them now than when we were targeting singles, doubles or triples. When you spook a school, they’re gone; and they don’t settle back down.”
Whenever fish turn belly up in Florida Bay or cyanobacteria poisons the estuaries, the public and politicians scream for a quick fix. There’s only one fix, however, and it’s not quick. It’s the 30-year, $10 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. We’re 16 years into it, and there have been major delays.
The plan entails huge reservoirs and storm-water treatment areas (STAs) completed north and south of the lake. Two of the northern STAs don’t work, and the third is on trial. In the agricultural area south of the lake there’s been modest progress. Six STAs covering 57,000 acres have reduced phosphorus to between 15 and 20 ppb, but to preserve the ecological health of the Everglades, phosphorus needs to get down to 10 ppb.
Many of the delays have been created by Florida’s Tea Party governor, Rick Scott, who has consistently undercut Everglades recovery—diverting funds, slashing the budget and staff of the South Florida Water Management District, and packing the District and his administration with developers, agribusiness entrepreneurs and other political hacks. Last year the governing board of the destitute District voted not to lower the millage rate (part of property taxes allocated to it). A week later Scott fired the District’s director. And Scott dropped the option for a long-planned purchase of 46,000 acres of agricultural land south of the lake for additional storm-water storage and treatment.
When cyanobacteria poisoned the two estuaries, Scott asked the federal government for disaster relief—this after he had served his sugar-industry funders by fighting all federal efforts to regulate phosphorus and nitrogen. At the same time he accused the feds of causing the devastation along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts by not strengthening the Hoover Dike.
Here’s how Scott appointees operate. In July, purely as a publicity stunt to convince Floridians that it was striving to reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges, the District cut water outflow from upstream Lake Kissimmee, filling it to near capacity. This only reduced the daily flow to Lake Okeechobee by 1/25″, assuming the water even got there. More likely it all evaporated or percolated out.
As a result, trees in the river’s floodplain were left on bare ground, and eggs and nestlings of endangered snail kites became vulnerable to raccoons and rat snakes. So the US Fish and Wildlife Service was legally compelled to write a polite letter to the District asking it to discuss options so that it might avoid violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Ignoring the invitation, District director Peter Antonacci seized the opportunity to attack the ESA (loathed by the Scott administration) and to strut and beat his chest about how, in the face of federal bullying, the District would bravely protect the public. In an open letter to senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio entitled “The Endangered Species Act v. Common Sense,” Antonacci wrote: “The USFWS is forcibly standing behind the ESA in an attempt to block the District’s emergency operational actions . . . . For our part, we’ll continue to protect our citizens and take our chances with a federal judge if and when these tin-eared bureaucrats haul us off to court. . . . As long as the ESA continues to exist in its current form, entire communities will suffer as misguided federal employees seek to enforce restrictions that defy common sense.” Naturally, Rubio ran with it.
In February fish kills in the northern part of the Saint Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon were especially spectacular, but these resulted from local septic, urban and lawn runoff, not Lake Okeechobee discharge. An element of the public doesn’t grasp that, and the District is feeding the confusion by alleging that “the nutrients and freshwater that can fuel growth of naturally occurring [cyanobacteria] also comes from local stormwater runoff and septic tanks.” But deadly cyanobacteria blooms have happened only when the Corps has vented Okeechobee water.
Although there’s no quick fix for South Florida, the future is far from hopeless. In 2014 Florida voters approved a ballot initiative (Amendment 1) to set aside major funding for land conservation, including Everglades restoration. With no objection from the Governor’s office, the legislature absconded with the funds. But the fight is on for proper allocation in the future.
The fight is also on for a deep reservoir south of the lake and wells around the perimeter that will store floodwater. A one-mile-long bridge has just been completed over the Tamiami Trail to increase water flow to Florida Bay. And a 2.6-mile-long bridge is in the works.
Restoration is expensive, but a study by the Everglades Foundation reveals that for every dollar invested there is a $4 return. “We know recovery is costly, but we also know the economics of it makes sense,” said Dr. Davis. “There is no silver bullet. Let’s finish the plan.”
I felt a little better about South Florida’s future when I clicked onto the “Now or Neverglades” website (gladesdeclaration.org) and added my name to a pledge signed by much of the environmental community and about every fishing-tackle business I’ve heard of. It reads: “I support the 200-plus Everglades scientists who believe that increased storage, treatment and conveyance of water south of Lake Okeechobee is essential to stop the damaging discharges to the coastal estuaries; to restore the flow of clean, fresh water to Everglades National Park, Florida Bay and the Florida Keys; to improve the health of Lake Okeechobee; and to protect the drinking water for 8 million Floridians living in Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Using Amendment 1 and other funds, we must identify and secure land south of the lake without delay, before development in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) or other uncertainties condemn our waters to irrevocable destruction.”
Rarely is it possible to repair the disasters we create when we attempt to remake natural systems to our liking. Luckily the mess we’ve made out of South Florida is an exception.
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Dugong washed ashore near Uchipuli
The carcass of a well-grown male dugong was washed ashore in Pudumadam area near Uchipuli in the district on Tuesday.
On being alerted by local fishermen and Marine Police of Coastal Security Group (CSG), S. Sathish, Forest Range Officer (Mandapam Range), inspected the carcass and buried it on the seashore after a post-mortem.
The marine mammal was aged around 30 years, he said, adding it had the habitat in the Gulf of Mannar. Examination of injuries found on the carcass and preliminary analysis revealed that it could have died of injuries after hitting against rocks, he said.
Sakthivel, scientist from Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), examined the body and took blood and tissue samples for tests. The exact cause of the death would be known after the test results came in a week, Mr. Sathish said.
The dugong could have died only a day or two days back as the carcass looked fresh. It measured 2.8 metres in length, with a circumference of 185 cm. It weighed about 350 kg, Mr. Sathish said.
This was the third carcass of dugong to be washed ashore from the Gulf of Mannar region in the last two years. Two carcasses were washed ashore in February and March in 2015.
The death of the mammal has come at a time when the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park of Forest Department launched ‘Save Dugong’ project with special focus on protecting the mammals in the Palk Bay.
The department has also launched capacity building training programme after recruiting ‘Friends of Dugong’ from the fisherfolk.
Restoring seagrass under siege
You need a boogie board and a wetsuit to garden with Katharyn Boyer, a biology professor at San Francisco State University in California.
They come in handy along the shorelines of the San Francisco Bay where Boyer and her colleagues are replanting eelgrass. For more than a decade, she’s experimented with methods to replenish these underwater plants that create key habitats and buffer zones for coastal ecosystems. Figuring out reliable ways to grow more eelgrass could revitalize these critical areas and help other scientists reverse seagrass losses around the world.
Seagrasses are disappearing at rates that rival those of coral reefs and tropical rainforests, losing as much as seven percent of their area each year, according to the IUCN. While only eelgrass grows along the muddy shorelines of San Francisco Bay, more than 70 species of seagrass worldwide cover a global area estimated at up to 600,000 kilometers squared (about 373,000 square miles) — an area roughly the size of Madagascar.
The flowering plants — not to be confused with seaweed — are considered “coastal canaries.” These sensitive indicators of ocean health will die when water runoff carries high loads of nutrients or sediment, or when boating activity disrupts their root systems. Changing water conditions, ocean warming, and acidification may also predispose these plants to the wasting disease that once wiped out most of the seagrass along the U.S. Atlantic coast.
In the Bay Area, the long strands of eelgrass provide shelter for fish nurseries, prime substrate for the sticky eggs of herring, and food for the small “grazers” that eat the algae coating on the grass. The plant beds also forestall erosion by trapping sediments and slowing down waves or currents. Although researchers estimate around 9,490 hectares (more than 23,000 acres) of the San Francisco coastline could support eelgrass beds, these plants grow on less than one percent of that shoreline.
“There are so many different environs in San Francisco Bay, we’d like to come up with a template that helps us determine what methods would work best for each site,” says Boyer, who keeps her office at the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies stocked with wetsuits.
Surveys of the San Francisco Bay Area showed that eelgrass beds were on the upswing between 2003 and 2009. Since then, replanting success rates have been unpredictable. Restoration efforts got a boost from damage mitigation funds set aside after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill, when a tanker dumped more than 50,000 gallons of crude bunker into Bay waters. The herring industry was hit especially hard, estimated to have lost about one-quarter of the next year’s spawning among the oil-contaminated eelgrass fronds.
Now, a third of the way into a nine-year restoration program, Boyer is part of an effort to add four acres of eelgrass to the coastline each year. Ideally, adding this acreage will enable the new eelgrass beds to continue self-propagating after the project is over.
Replanting the eelgrass is painstaking work. Boyer brings out the boogie boards to haul gear or plants around shallow water sites where she anchors the new transplants with bamboo stakes. Each eelgrass shoot is twist-tied to the upper end of a stake. Then, cupping a hand over the plant, the end of the stake is buried. In about two weeks, the roots take hold. Another method, developed by her colleagues, uses “sucker sticks” to attach eelgrass with string and then groups the sticks on lengths of PVC piping, to more easily maneuver the plants in deeper waters — where the “gardeners” wear thicker wetsuits.
Many variables can affect planting success, notes Boyer. Genotyping may help identify if there’s a “universal donor,” one type of eelgrass that can grow anywhere. Or, plants may thrive on diversity and grow best when grouped with eelgrass from different areas. This year, scientists sequenced the eelgrass genome for the first time, and that information may offer more clues to maximize planting success.
Transplanting microbes from the sediment of the donor site, along with the plant, may augment growth, too. Boyer is also investigating how plant vitality might be affected by grazers that eat the epiphytes — the single-celled and larger forms of algae that grow on seagrasses. Some of these mesograzers, such as the invasive Ampithoe valida, which resemble tiny shrimp, may cause more harm than good by eating the eelgrass along with the algae.
“We try to do our restoration in an experimental way, to learn from each area and do better next time,” says Boyer.
One failure, still unexplained, occurred in Corte Madera Bay, where healthy grass beds died suddenly after years of apparently healthy persistence. Although Boyer wants to keep looking for an answer, she says there isn’t time for that — not if scientists plan to meet the goal of getting 36 more acres of seagrass planted before the nine-year project ends.
If there have been surprising failures, there have also been unexpected successes. Eelgrass is thriving in Elkhorn Slough, an estuary about 100 miles south of San Francisco. Bordered by agricultural fields, the runoff is rich with fertilizer, making the water prone to algal blooms that usually kill seagrass. When algae coats the eelgrass, it diminishes the light available for photosynthesis and plant survival. Despite these conditions, the eelgrass in the Slough is abundant. That anomaly made Brent Hughes, a marine biologist from the University of California at Santa Cruz, wonder: Why?
“One day, I received a rare dataset of sea otter abundance in Elkhorn Slough from a citizen science program; 15 years of data. I was floored when I overlaid trends in eelgrass with trends in sea otters, they fit like a glove,” says Hughes.
The rise in the slough’s sea otter population correlated with the increase in eelgrass beds. Hughes theorized that the otters’ big appetites — they eat at least 25 percent of their body weight in prey every day — impacted eelgrass growth. He thought the otters’ food choices might improve conditions for the plant, similar to the way otter consumption of sea urchins promotes the growth of kelp beds.
However, the ecosystem dynamics in the slough were complex. To sort them out, Hughes conducted field experiments, placing cages — or not — over crabs in the eelgrass, and lab trials that recreated the food web in buckets, called mesocosms. His results showed that when large crabs were abundant, they ate the invertebrates that usually removed algae from the eelgrass. Yet when sea otters were present, they ate most of those crabs, allowing the invertebrates to flourish and keep the eelgrass free from harmful algal epiphytes.
“Now that we have determined that sea otters can promote healthy eelgrass, what other indirect effects could they have? For example, can they enhance the restoration success of eelgrass?” asks Hughes.
This wouldn’t be the first place where top predators influenced the growth of seagrass. In other areas, scientists have shown that sea turtles graze down the grass, creating a healthier growing environment.
Hughes is also collaborating with Boyer to identify and count the tiny herbivores that live off the slough’s eelgrass. Although Boyer is surprised they haven’t yet found invasive invertebrates that are common in San Francisco Bay, so far, they’ve only noted native grazers, such as Taylor’s sea hare, a cryptic invertebrate that blends in perfectly with the eelgrass.
Taking inventory under a microscope is time-consuming, but new funds will go toward training camera-linked software to complete the identifications, a process that could eventually allow for citizen scientists to join the effort.
Getting eelgrass to grow in more abundance will help maintain better water quality and boost the entire ecosystem. Many people hope that the underwater meadows will contribute to keeping carbon out of the atmosphere, too.
“First we need to figure out how to grow eelgrass on a larger scale,” says Boyer. “If we can really do that, then we’ll need a huge team of people who can help garden the Bay.”
Massive South Florida reservoir back in spotlight at conference
A massive South Florida reservoir that is key to fixing the Everglades’ faulty plumbing, and has divided water managers and environmentalists, will once again take center stage at an annual meeting on restoration next weekend.
Drawing conservationists, politicians and scientists from across the state and Washington, the Fort Myers conference, titled “Three Estuaries, One Solution,” comes about midway through restoration efforts, with the work well behind schedule — less than 18 percent of the $16 billion effort has been funded, according to the National Academies of Sciences’ most recent update.
While not a new issue, the contentious stand-off on the reservoir has grown testier this year, with incoming Florida Senate President Joe Negron vowing to push for purchasing 60,000 acres of sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee in the upcoming legislative session. No leadership from the South Florida Water Management District would take part in the conference, organizers said. And earlier this month, a resolution by Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava to support the reservoir dissolved in a dispute over jobs, even though sugar farming is now largely mechanized.
“There was a time years ago when the water management district actually sponsored the conference with a large financial contribution,” said National Parks Conservation Association Everglades program manager and conference chair Cara Capp. “So different times.”
Over the last year, district officials have also fought aggressively in press releases, editorials and an info graphic to instead direct efforts away from sugar land, north of the lake.
“They are spending a lot of time on public relations and trying to make the case that this is not an urgent need, but we know from virtually every scientist and our senate president how urgent it is,” Levine Cava said. “We can’t afford to put that part of Everglades restoration on a shelf.”
In his letter to commissioners, district executive director Pete Antonacci called the focus on the reservoir “myopic,” saying it does “little to contribute to restoration success.” Antonacci did not respond to a request for comment. But district spokesman Randy Smith said the governing board simply wants to stick to a schedule laid out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that slates work for 2021, even though the Corps said in July it was willing to move up planning.
Smith said the board has not taken a position on the proposal by Negron, who over the summer met with environmentalists and farmers before concluding that the reservoir was the best fix for stopping dirty lake discharges and moving fresh water to Florida Bay. Over the last year, releases from the lake fouled both the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, leaving the Treasure Coast coated with toxic algae for months. At least 25 miles of seagrass began dying in the bay in 2015.
Antonacci has said buying the land now would postpone other work. But environmentalists say Amendment 1, overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2014, has provided more than enough money.
District officials have also said storing water north makes more sense because it keeps pollution from entering the lake, where phosphorus remains high from years of fertilizer run-off. In the info graphic, they say a University of Floridas study called for a million acre-feet of water storage north and south of the lake, “with three-quarters of that storage or up to 750,000 acre-feet needed north of the lake.”
But the graphic failed to include UF’s recommendation for more storage south — up to 507,000 acre feet — because routing water from the north takes too long and would not “be as effective as southern storage in meeting timing and distribution objectives.”
The sugar industry and local farmers have also pitched the reservoir as an attack on a way of life. Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor created the Glades Lives Matter nonprofit in July with a Facebook page that echoes many of the sugar industry's complaints.
While restoration has frequently been contentious, environmentalists worry that the district’s strategy ignores science.
Not having more storage south, according to the NAS report, threatens to derail ecological progress on the handful of projects under way. With design changes and revised rules on water levels in Lake Okeechobee since the original restoration plan was created, about a million acre-feet of storage have been lost that now need to be accounted for, the report said.
“The past year almost perfectly exemplifies the problem, where you have one problem going on in the estuaries to the north and south suffering from excess water and the harmful effects from that, and at the exact same time you’re seeing the opposite problem at the south end where seagrass is dying off,” said Julie Hill-Gabriel, Audubon Florida’s director of Everglades policy. “In the natural Everglades that didn’t happen.”
The Negron proposal seemed to bridge the divide, she said.
“We left that meeting and he said, I’ll announce a plan that makes the most sense in eight weeks, and two days later he held a press conference,” she said. “Lo and behold what he took away from all those people was, hey, guess what? We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We need to do what was in the plan in the first place.”
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