By Natalie Strom
The mangroves along San Marco Road are dying. It is visible, it is getting worse and it has been years in the making. Top researchers, mangrove experts, concerned citizens, the City of Marco Island and the state have all come together in a joint effort to hopefully solve this crisis. After a groundbreaking ceremony held in November of 2011 at the site, little activity was seen. Thanks to donations of time and money, Phase 1A of the Fruit Farm Creek Restoration was finally completed over Labor Day weekend.
According to Jeff Carter, Project Manager for Rookery Bay, which oversees the 250 acres of dying mangroves, Jim Raiser of Gulf Shore Site Development in Naples, “came to the rescue and donated his time,” to dig a trench along the north side of the road connecting the major die-off area to an historic tidal creek.
“The proposal that was permitted (for Phase 1A); the purpose of it was to allow flushing into the dead areas because right now they are just impounded by water and there’s no flushing,” explains Kathy Worley, Biologist and Co-Director of Environmental Science at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
Over a period of four years, beginning in 2000, Worley studied the mangroves, monitoring 17 plot points in various health phases. The study not only proved that the mangrove die-off was getting worse, but also proved why they were dying. “We looked at the hydrology; what was happening underneath the soil and how it was moving on top of the land. We studied vegetation, soil, water quality, what was living and what wasn’t so we could prove what was causing the die-off. What it came down to was altered hydrology.” states Worley.
Originally altered by the installation of San Marco Road (SR-92) in 1938, the mangroves began to visibly die in 1992 after heavy rainfalls. By re-altering the tidal flow once again, those involved believe it will allow for better flushing of the mangroves. “The goal is to reconnect and try to drain off some of that water and allow normal tidal flushing because mangroves do need water, they just don’t need that much,” continues Worley.
Raiser’s mini-excavator, donated by Equipment Source, tore through the rooted areas, dredging the 320-foot long canal that should provide the desperately-needed drainage.
According to Roy “Robin” Lewis, III, President of Coastal Resources Group, Inc., “Substantial improvements to the vegetation there should be visible by Christmas.” Lewis‘ not-for-profit corporation partnered with Rookery Bay after the mangrove expert saw the die-off area while on vacation in Marco. He believes, “it will work because we have restored the historic tidal flows to the area. We have done this type of project several times before in SouthWest Florida, including at Clam Bay (in Naples). It worked fine there, and it will work fine here,” he states.
“Some restoration projects don’t have nearly the amount of planning and science-based information that we have obtained for this process,” adds Gary Lytton, Environmental Administrator at Rookery Bay.
While much time and research was donated to the well-researched project, nothing in this world is ever free. “Because the government doesn’t hand us money, we have to find that money from other sources, states Carter. “Our goal is to form partnerships so that can happen.”
While much of the federal funding for these types of projects has dried up, an initial $75,000 grant from US Fish and Wildlife and approximately $15,000 raised through grass-roots efforts of concerned Marco citizen, Bob Olson, funding for Phase 1A as well as full permitting and engineering costs to complete the full project have been paid for.
However, “We have no funding to do any more work,” explains Lewis. “We need very substantial donations of local funds in order to proceed. About $500,000 is needed to do the next phase of the work.”
All involved hope that seeing the regrowth of the mangroves on the north side of SR-92 will encourage people to get excited about raising money to complete the project, saving the dying mangroves on the south side of the street.
“This project is a labor of love,” states Bob Olson. “I’ve been at this for three years and I can’t thank everyone enough who have handed in donations. It’s been a blessing to have collected donations from so many folks, but now we are at a point that the next phase will need a lot more.”
Rookery Bay hopes the government will take notice of the improvements as well. “This is really a shovel-ready project because the permits are there, the planning and engineering is there and the partnership is in place,” adds Carter. “We think by finishing Phase 1A that it will give us a strong chance of us being able to put in a strong proposal for a grant. We can show them it’s shovel-ready and we’ve shown some success with that first phase.”
The timing of Phase 1A couldn’t be better. As the mangroves are in one of their two annual seedling cycles, Labor Day weekend was the perfect time to complete Phase 1A. It will give the seedlings a chance to spread out and begin to grow as the area should now see a much more regular water flow pattern.
Stay tuned as the Holiday season should bring Marco some nice gifts in the form of baby mangrove trees. Perhaps Santa will grant an even bigger gift in the form of a check to finish the work. Maybe if we all believe…
To learn more about the Fruit Farm Creek Restoration project, visit www.marcomangroves.com.