For instance, the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District have been trying to transfuse water from the problematic C-111 canal toward Taylor Slough. After two years of experimental pumping, the results are discouraging. "There's no evidence any of that water is making it to the bay," concedes Steve Davis, an ecologist for the water district. Davis and others suspect that what's being pumped toward the backcountry is cresting at the upland marshes and retreating downhill into the same holding canal from which it came. Even in a swamp, gravity rules.
No fewer than 15 government agencies and private conservation groups are working on the mystery of Florida Bay. Support has been strong and bipartisan, but folks in the Keys are nervous about the anti-environment mood in Congress. Meanwhile scientists are lining up for about $5 million worth of grants earmarked for studying the bay.
The camps are sharply divided between those who believe years of further research are needed and those who advocate swift action. Davis says that well-grounded science is important, but the clock is ticking for the backcountry: "We want to move ahead. We don't want to study this thing to death."
So many bureaucracies are involved in the saving of Florida Bay that it's inconceivable that the process would go smoothly, and it hasn't. After a long, heated battle with vegetable growers, the state of Florida this year finally agreed to condemn and purchase the Frog Pond, a tract in southwest Dade County deemed critical to the replenishing of the bay. But no sooner was the deal done than the state offered to lease the disputed land back to the very farmers it had evicted. (Applying the same logic, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf should have allowed Saddam Hussein to reoccupy Kuwait after the gulf war and pay rent.)
The upgrading of Florida Bay from a problem to an emergency has also spawned predictably petty turf guarding and bickering about who's running the show. In July, for example, scores of scientists met in the Keys to offer strategies for reinvigorating the bay. Conspicuously absent were the staff and biologists of Everglades National Park, wherein the bay is situated. Incredibly, park staffers were forbidden to attend the summit. The brass didn't like the way the meeting had been arranged, so they ordered a boycott.
Nothing like team spirit in a time of crisis.
The last 18 months have been blessedly wet. Loads of rain, including a deluge from tropical storm Jerry, drenched the Everglades and continue to nourish Florida Bay. Some shallow banks show a stubble of new sea grass—a promising sign, even if it's only a few meager inches. Salinity in the bay's northeastern reaches has fallen to predrought levels.
Another good sign: The algae blooms aren't as stubborn as in recent summers. Prevailing breezes have kept the discolored waters away from the shorelines of the Upper Keys—a relief for the Chamber of Commerce, because not even the most dogged tourists will snorkel in pea soup.
In some basins and inlets the back-country looks amazingly healthy. It was a good spring for tarpon, and guides say snook fishing is the best it has been in 20 years. An air of cautious hope has returned to the docks. "The water," says Hank Brown, "is absolutely gorgeous in places. But every time you get your hopes up, a storm comes through, and everything looks like crap again."
All of us who live here would love to think that the worst is over, that Florida Bay is rebounding for good. But most scientists don't think so. The rains are fickle, and by winter the water might be too salty again.