Seven months later, Irma is still spreading misery in Keys canals and Florida Bay

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Seven months after Irma slammed into the Florida Keys, canals choked with debris, damaged mangroves and a hurricane-size mixing of Florida Bay continue to spread water woes across the region.

Only a fraction of the debris in more than 500 canals has been removed as Monroe County officials and federal emergency managers continue to wrestle over the $52.6 million clean-up cost, Sustainability Director Rhonda Haag told the South Florida Water Management District governing board on Thursday during a field hearing in Marathon. Meanwhile, Irma may complicate Florida Bay’s recovery from a massive seagrass die-off after damaging wide swaths of the mangroves ringing the bay.

Only 16 canals and about 3,000 cubic yards of debris have been cleared, Haag said, leaving an estimated 97,000 cubic yards of awnings, roofs, downed trees, RVs, broken docks and other debris blocking canals not only for boats but manatees and other marine life.

“It’s a complicated process, which is why the canals were not cleared after Hurricane Wilma,” Haag said. “But now with Irma, this is countywide and we cannot afford to let the debris sit in the canals. We absolutely cannot.”

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Debris in a canal on Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys, January 18, 2018. Debris has littered the canals in the Keys after Hurricane Irma ravaged the middle keys in September.

The U.S. Coast Guard removed hundreds of boats clogging canals, but debris was left up to local authorities. So in February, the county, Islamorada and Marathon began some clean-up using about $10 million in state money that must be repaid over two years. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials had initially agreed to provide additional money to clean canals, some as deep as 40 feet, but only to about six feet to make them navigable for boats.

After county officials objected and provided proof that larger boats use the canals, local FEMA workers agreed to go deeper to more than 16 feet. But Haag said higher-ups disagreed. FEMA has also said it will only pay to remove debris left by Irma, further complicating the clean-up.

“The physics of it don’t make sense,” board chairman Federico Fernandez complained. “To a native Floridian it doesn’t seem practical or effective for how the federal government addresses our needs to get back on our feet.”

The state also ceased clean-up efforts on April 18 and is now considering how to continue the work, Haag said.

Irma may also hamper the county’s $700 million canal restoration project, launched last year to fend off environmental regulators after nearly 150 canals failed to meet water-quality standards. Muck washed back into some cleaned canals, and barriers erected to keep out debris were all destroyed.

After talks with FEMA stalled, Haag said the county started looking for other money and found the U.S. Department of Agriculture would pay about $45 million as part of a natural resources conservation effort. But only 103 canals qualified. The county now hopes to resume work using the USDA money in July, she said and ask FEMA to make up the difference.

“We’re not trying to double dip anywhere, we just want one agency or another” to pay, she said. “It’s not easy with marine debris. I’m not putting it on FEMA. It’s just not like [cleaning] streets.”

Irma also took a toll on Florida Bay, killing about 40 percent of mangroves, which could complicate the bay’s recovery from a 2015 die-off that wiped out more than 60 square miles of seagrass.

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Following Hurricane Irma, signs of algae blooms were detected throughout the central and northeastern parts of Florida Bay. Source: South Florida Water Management District

Before the hurricane, the grasses had started to return, following a similar recovery seen after a historic die-off in 1987 that triggered algae blooms and dead zones that strangled fishing throughout the bay. But then Irma hit.

As the storm rolled in, water emptied out, then surged back in a six-foot storm surge that churned up the bottom, filling the bay with cloudy water. Scientists say so many damaged mangroves could also erode the shore and send more dead vegetation and sediment into the bay. After the storm, scientists recorded the highest levels of chlorophyll, an indication of algae blooms, ever documented in the bay.

“Irma put everything in a reset mode,” said Water Resources Division Director Terrie Bates.

While chlorophyll levels have started to drop, parts of the central and northeast areas of the bay where the district monitors still show higher levels. The district does not monitor in the western parts of the bay where algae may also be present.

“I’ve always been told storms are good for the bay,” board member Sam Accursio said. “But in this case it seems like it set us back months, maybe years.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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