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County interested turning Wisteria Island into a park. 15A

State, fed districts mostly untouched despite growth

FLORIDA KEYS — Despite strong population growth in Monroe County over the last decade, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, the redistricting process currently being undertaken in the Florida Legislature is unlikely to move the boundary of the Florida Keys’ representation much in Tallahassee or Washington, D.C.

Proposed maps for both congressional districts and state House and Senate districts have only a slight difference in area. In all three, the Keys are lumped into a district containing a portion of South Dade and the Everglades. As one redistricting expert pointed out, a comparable amount of growth in surrounding districts would negate the need to move the district boundary.

“It is possible if the change in the population is relatively consistent across districts that the districts would not need to change much, if at all,” said Dr. Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who studies redistricting. “Here in Gainesville, it is possible to redistrict the city commission districts with only a slight change between the two districts.”

As another scholar points out, the Keys population, although it did grow, is still far too small to have much of an impact on redistricting. Monroe County’s population grew to 82,874, up from about 73,000 in 2010. But Florida now has a population of 21 million, and with 28 congressional districts, that means the ideal amount of people for each district is about 750,000. That growth of 10,000 people in the Keys, while it may feel significant in the island chain, is barely a drop in the bucket to the rest of the state.

According to the state redistricting website, a new feature for this year’s redistricting, Florida’s 26th congressional district, containing the Keys and South Dade, is home to 787,914 people, only slightly deviated from its ideal size. Dr. Ira Sheskin, a geography professor at the University of Miami, said even though Keys residents may feel different culturally from Miami-Dade, there’s simply never going to be enough people in the island chain to warrant an independent congressional district.

“Monroe County, at 80,000, has to be combined with parts of Miami,” Sheskin said. “You can’t have your own district. That’s pretty clear.”

The Keys are currently represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by Republican Carlos Gimenez, the mayor of Miami-Dade County from 2011 to 2020.

Four maps have been proposed for District 39 in the Florida Senate, currently held by Republican Ana M. Rodriguez of Doral. That district includes the Keys. All four contain identical boundaries for District 39, and are only slightly different from the old map.

Florida’s Legislature will not vote on the new maps until its regularly scheduled session in January. Many other states have already completed the redistricting process and some media outlets and academic groups have criticized several as heavily gerrymandered to one party.

The New York Times reported that new district maps throughout the nation are more intensely gerrymandered than any other since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 and may give Republicans control of the House of Representatives.

In states like Texas, which has been slowly trending blue for years, Republicans gave themselves a significant advantage, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which grades states on how fair congressional maps are. Princeton gave the final map in Texas, already signed into law, an F. The same goes for swing state North Carolina. Meanwhile in Oregon, the advantage went the other way, with the final maps getting an F, but with a significant advantage for Democrats.

Some analysts thought 2020 was a chance for Florida Republicans to give themselves a significant advantage. Sheskin shared a congressional map from 2004 in Palm Beach County, heavily gerrymandered with complicated zig-zag borders that sought to lump together Black and Jewish neighborhoods, as an example of the problem in Florida. But looking at the new proposed maps, Sheskin said they weren’t as bad as anticipated. Princeton agrees, and gave Florida’s new proposed congressional and state Senate maps a B, with just a slight Republican advantage.

Sheskin added that it is “very possible” that once those maps are sent to the Legislature for consideration, members could try to tamper with them along party lines.

Once considered a swing state in presidential elections, Florida has trended red in the last two decades and is now a Republican stronghold in state politics. As late as the 1980s, the Florida Keys were solidly blue, but now has significantly more registered Republicans than Democrats, according to the Monroe County Supervisor of Elections website.

Nesting season offers mixed bag

SOUTH FLORIDA — An estimated 43,860 wading bird nests were built during the 2019-20 season, which typically runs November through May, according to the South Florida Water Management District’s annual nesting report. That wasn’t a great year, but it wasn’t completely unexpected or entirely bad either, according to researchers.

Although overall nest numbers were up slightly from the prior year, it was the second year in a row that the numbers fell shy of the 10-year average of 46,841 nests. During the 2018-19 season, only 37,303 nests were documented.

“This is what we expect,” said Mark Cook, SFWMD environmental scientist and lead author of the state agency’s annual nesting report.

The recently released report, which was delayed due to logistical challenges caused by COVID, contained good news about tricolored herons and roseate spoonbills, but the plight of the threatened wood stork was cause for concern.

The study found that the bulk of wading bird nests — 85.8% — were built in the Everglades and is considered a barometer of a healthy ecosystem. Lake Okeechobee accounted for 4.4% of the nests in South Florida. Another regionally important nesting area during 2019-20 was Florida Bay with 2,485 nests.

“There are good years between the bad years,” Cook said. “These birds are moving around quite a bit. They’re using a huge area to nest and just because they’re not nesting in the Everglades, it isn’t the end of the world. Having two lower years isn’t awful. They weren’t terrible. We’ve made some major improvements since the early 2000s.”

A goal of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and other restoration programs in South Florida is to replicate the natural ecosystem of pre-drainage Everglades, which was home to huge populations of breeding wading birds.

Cook said with more water now moving south through the Tamiami Trail bridges, an increase of wading bird nests should occur but won’t be immediate. Scientists are still trying figure out where to send more water to get super colonies back.

“There is more water going under the bridges now, especially through Shark River Slough,” Cook said. “It doesn’t happen instantly. We had good coastal nesting, which was directly from the Tamiami road restoration projects and the C-111 canal project.”

White ibis are the dominant species in the Everglades. When there is an overall drop in nest numbers, it’s mainly due to fewer ibis, he said.

White ibis nests were down by 20% in 2019-20, but remained the most numerous nesting species in South Florida. Typically, they comprise between 45% and 78% of all wading bird nests.

“These are long-lived birds,” Cook said. “They live up to 20 years and affect nest numbers greatly.”

He is concerned, however, about the wood stork, a state and federal “threatened” species whose nesting period has been off-kilter.

“We still can’t get it to nest earlier in the season,” Cook said. “They have a nesting period that lasts about four months. If they nest in November or December, the chicks would fledge March or April and go off and learn how to be storks. We’re getting good nest numbers, but they’re fledging too late in June or July. They lose their prey base with the rainy season and the chicks starve.”

Most other wading bird species have half the length nesting periods at about two months.

“Snowy egrets, tricolored herons and little blue herons are declining, and we aren’t sure why,” Cook added. “They do seem to improve with good conditions. [Roseate] spoonbills are a mixed bag. They are moving further inland or along the Gulf coast.”

The location of roseate spoonbill nesting colonies have shifted north in recent years. The Everglades Protection Area, which comprises the water conservation areas and Everglades National Park, now supports between 75% and 95% of all roseate spoonbill nests annually.

Most spoonbill nesting historically occurred on small islands in Florida Bay. Over the past decade, these birds have moved to mainland colonies adjacent to the coast like the Madeira Hammock and Paurotis Pond colonies, yet some years, they still return to the bay.

The 2019-20 nesting season produced a total of 203 spoonbill nests in Florida Bay. That is a relatively modest nesting effort compared to recent years. It is 73% of the 10-year average of 276.5 nests and only 16% of the target 1,258 nests.

The number of chicks was also down in the bay, with an estimated 0.87 chicks produced per nest, well below the target 1.38 chicks per nest, according to Jerry Lorenz, state research director with Audubon Florida and the study’s contributing author.

Since 2010, spoonbill nesting has been starting later in the season. In 2016, it began on Feb. 5, the latest start date on record.

Overall, Lorenz says the nesting season both offers hope and raises concerns.

“The 2019-20 nesting season was both good news and bad news,” he said. “We did better than we did in the ‘80s and ‘90s.”

He says it may either be too soon to see the fruition of Everglades restoration projects, or that they may be masked by rising seas.

“Ecosystems don’t change immediately. We don’t expect huge numbers every year. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the number of nests fluctuated greatly. That’s how the Everglades work.”

He did, however, note that Florida Bay is hosting more tricolored herons.

“What we are seeing is tricolored herons being one of the most abundant species. There are as many in Florida Bay as there are in the Everglades. We found 46% in Florida Bay. Maybe with sea-level rise, it’s wetter much longer and we are creating new habitat. That’s only my guess, though.”

Their numbers are a welcome relief, agreed Cook.

“The good news is that they’re there,” he said. “They’re declining elsewhere.”

To read the report, visit

Bill aims to ‘abolish’ Key West

TALLAHASSEE — A state bill has been drafted without the knowledge of local representatives that would “abolish” the city of Key West and transfer “all assets and legitimate liabilities and revenue streams to the county.”

A draft of the bill was obtained by the new website, which shared the draft with the Florida Keys Free Press last week.

There was no wording in the bill to indicate the bill’s sponsor. After Monroe County and city of Key West officials learned of the bill, they reached out to their state lobbying teams.

State Rep. Jim Mooney, R-Islamorada, started making inquiries after learning of the draft bill, he said.

“It’s a game,” Mooney said. “It’s not going anywhere. This is nonsense. ... I have been to leadership about this. ... I am not taking this lightly.”

State Sen. Ana Maria Rodriquez, R-Miami, who represents the Keys, said, “I am in complete opposition to this. I don’t know who is behind it, but I think it’s a terrible idea and would fight it every step of the way.’

According to the bill’s language: “The City of Key West is abolished. All assets and legitimate liabilities and revenue streams of Key West are transferred to Monroe County.”

The bill states the legislation would be effective July 1, 2022. The bill comes as the nearly 200-year-old iconic city and state legislators have been at odds over proposed local cruise ship regulations and the state overturned a local election approving restrictions on cruise ships.

The Key West City Commission is currently researching ways to turn the voter-approved restrictions into city ordinances or regulations, which would not be covered by the state’s pre-emption laws. The referenda put limits on the size of ships and numbers of passengers coming into Key West each day.

Key West and county officials and their lobbying teams in Tallahassee started exchanging emails and texts on Tuesday, Nov. 16, about the proposed bill as the Key West City Commission was holding its monthly meeting.

Key West Mayor Teri Johnston called the draft “sheer insanity.”

“It’s really a sad day when you have a difference of opinion and you then want to dissolve a city,” Johnston said. “I hope this is political theater. If not, we are in serious trouble.”

Johnston and others familiar with the draft had been told state Rep. Spencer Roach, R-Fort Myers, was the legislator filing the bill. Roach could not be reached for comment.

Key West City Manager Patti McLaughlin and other city staff have been in contact with the city’s lobbyist in Tallahassee on the bill, McLaughlin said.

Roach filed the initial bill to overturn the Key West referenda on cruise ships. Roach also filed the bill prohibiting Key West and other cities from implementing regulations banning the use of certain types of sunscreen found to harm coral reefs.

If Roach’s effort turns out to be successful, it would not be the first time a Florida city was dissolved. Hacienda Village, which was founded 1949, is a defunct town in central Broward County. The small city had a police and fire department like other municipal agencies, yet still relied heavily on Broward County for many services.

The city was disincorporated in 1984 after the police department cited an influential state representative for a traffic infraction and was subsequently absorbed into the nearby town of Davie. The community had a reputation for being a speed trap, according to published reports.

Hacienda Village was composed of 14 mobile homes and three junkyards. Residents were not taxed, as the town always had a healthy surplus of funds from traffic fines. The fines were a result of obscure speed limit postings that were heavily enforced by police officers, according to published reports.

Return of foreign travelers expected next year

FLORIDA KEYS — It has been about two weeks since fully-vaccinated foreign travelers could enter the United States, after almost 20 months of being shut out of the Florida Keys and other iconic vacation destinations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Business leaders in the Keys reported that a few foreign travelers have arrived, but they are not expected to return in a significant way until summer, their usual travel season.

Judy Hull, executive director of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce, said the number of foreign travelers in the visitor center is still down from pre-COVID numbers but is “definitely climbing.”

Her staff has reported hearing from tourists from Canada, Argentina, Peru, Germany, France, Brazil, Chile and the U.K., among others.

Hull pointed out that the domestic tourism market remains strong for this time of year, and has been since U.S. 1 reopened after being closed early in the pandemic.

“The only time we were ever down was when they closed the highway. But once they opened it, we were running some really high numbers,” she said.

Hull added that with the borders opening and the pandemic receding overall, the Keys could be inching toward a more traditional tourism cycle.

A similar situation was reported in the Middle Keys by Daniel Samess, CEO of the Greater Marathon Chamber of Commerce.

“We are starting to see some international visitors trickle in,” Samess said. “A few from Germany and Canada so far, I believe. I am not anticipating a huge surge since Europe (certain areas) are again seeing COVID spikes and we are not in their normal holiday season, which is typically summertime. Hopefully in 2022 we will see a more normalized international visitorship in Marathon and the Florida Keys.”

Robert Goltz, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, reported that they do not have any data on foreign tourists at this point and that the matter had not yet been discussed in the chamber.

Stacey Mitchell of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council said November is not the time of year when a robust amount of international tourists would be coming to the Keys. As both she and Samess said, that is in the summer.

In Europe, workers typically get five to six weeks of vacation time per year, but have to put in requests for time off early with employers, Mitchell said. January is a popular month to book summertime vacations for Europeans, and they typically come for longer stays of at least two weeks.

“European travelers book six to nine months in advance, so if you want to be at the top of their minds you’ll have to be in advance,” Mitchell said.

The TDC has two offices in the U.K. and Germany and once it got word that foreign travel was going to be permitted, a promotion campaign for Keys vacations was launched.

“Slowly at first and we will ramp it up in anticipation of people planning summer holidays,” Mitchell said.

Currently, Mitchell said some of the foreign visitors who are here may be visiting family members after being unable to see them for so long. She knows personally of one family that had been separated by international borders since the pandemic began. Once the borders opened, they were on the “first flight over” to reunite and take a trip to the Keys.

Everglades National Park ready to celebrate founding. 1B

Corps adopts final Lake O plan

SOUTH FLORIDA — Out of more than 240,000 model runs of discharging water from Lake Okeechobee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chose “Model 260467” as the framework on which the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, the playbook that will guide water releases for the next decade, will be based.

While not every stakeholder is happy, conservationists applaud LOSOM as an improvement over LORS 08, the current lake schedule that has been, in part, guided by the lake’s ailing Herbert Hoover Dike and responsible for sending toxic blue-green algae west to the Caloosahatchee estuary and east to the St. Lucie estuary.

Since 2001, the 143-mile dike structure surrounding Lake Okeechobee has been undergoing rehabilitation at an estimated cost of $1.8 billion. The work is expected to be complete near the end of 2022, at which time, LOSOM is expected to be implemented.

According to Col. James Booth, the Army Corps of Engineers’ Jacksonville District commander, Model 260467 was chosen since it eliminates lake releases to the St. Lucie under normal conditions 95% of the time while flows to the west will be below 2,000 cubic feet per second, which the Corps says will minimize algae blooms.

The Corps manages lake levels to ensure the safety of the 9.3 million people of South Florida who rely on the Herbert Hoover Dike for flood protection.

However, large releases of fresh water from the lake into the estuaries can fuel massive algae blooms that are harmful to the ecosystem. Everglades advocates have called for that water to be released south where a huge reservoir and filtration marshes are being built to store and clean the water before it moves into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, where it is needed.

The new plan will increase water flows south to the Everglades to an annual average of 203,000 acre-feet per year, “which is a massive annual increase,” according to Booth.

The Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg praised the Corps’ new plan.

“This is the first time since 2008 that water managers are changing their approach in managing Lake Okeechobee’s water, and it is a major improvement from the status quo for the overwhelming majority of Floridians,” Eikenberg said in an issued statement. “This plan will significantly reduce harmful discharges to our east and west coasts and increase water flow south to the Everglades and Florida Bay, particularly in the dry season. ...

“While the long-term solution to South Florida’s complex water problems and the full elimination of discharges from the lake will only happen with new water infrastructure like the Everglades reservoir, this is a significant step toward a more balanced approach to managing the lake water that Floridians and our state rely on.”

Under LOSOM, the lake will spend less time below 12.56 feet than under LORS. LOSOM will keep the lake on average .6 inches higher than LORS, at 14 feet and runs from 14 feet to 15.5 feet in January and at about 13 feet in June. Ultimately, lake levels above 17 feet were not retained in the Corps’ plan.

Florida Bay advocates say the plan will benefit local waters.

“We are pleased with the outcome of the LOSOM process and the Corps’ selected plan. The modeling shows that flows south to the Everglades will increase threefold, which is sure to yield hydration and great benefit to Florida Bay as we await southern storage,” said Emma Haydocy, the Florida Bay Forever executive director.

Still, some remain skeptical of LOSOM.

“It’s not all we hoped for, but ultimately, it’s better than what we have now,” the Friends of the Everglades said in an issued statement.

“Model 260467 would discharge an average of 117,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie estuary every year. The good news is that’s 37% less than what might have been discharged had the Corps taken no action and continued to utilize the existing lake schedule. The bad news? It’s a 63% increase over the 72,000 acre-feet per year originally proposed in the Corps’ ‘preferred alternative,’ Plan CC.

“To be sure, there are other benefits. The amount of water sent south to the Everglades will triple under LOSOM. The Caloosahatchee estuary will see an increase in optimal flows and a decrease in damaging discharges from the lake. We applaud these changes, having advocated the Corps improve outcomes for the Caloosahatchee via the optimization process.”

The group, however, was critical of LOSOM’s “conservation mode,” which it says would “cut off helpful flows to the Everglades and Caloosahatchee during dry periods in order to stockpile water for sugarcane corporations south of the lake — resulting in more damaging discharges east and west during the wet season.”

According to Tim Gysan, LOSOM project director, the Corps next intends to issue a full-sweep model mid-December and begin drafting the Environmental Impact Statement as required.