Sheltered from the Gulf of Mexico by mature mangrove stands and limestone formations, spring-fed Fillman's Bayou is a rare, well-preserved pocket of natural wonder amid the tightly knit sprawl of south Florida's Gulf Coast.
Unfortunately the future of this magical marine paradise, where ospreys and bald eagles soar overhead as schools of mullet and needlefish swim among manatees and bottlenose dolphins, hangs in the balance as the Army Corps of Engineers considers two separate but closely intertwined proposals. One calls for a new Pasco County park providing boat-access to the Gulf; the other is for a nearby residential, hotel, golf and boating development to be called Sunwest Harbourtowne, in the vicinity of Aripeka near the Pasco-Hernando county line.
The link between the two ventures is a proposal to dredge a five-mile channel through Fillman's Bayou, the heart of one of the state's largest-remaining stretches of relatively undisturbed seagrass, an important nursery for aquatic species, and a haven for Florida's beloved manatee. It's astonishing that in the 21st century we would even consider developing the bayou, an irreplaceable swath of natural beauty that serves as the gateway to a highly functioning, intact coastal ecosystem.
Pasco County included the dredge request with its proposal to erect a county park even though the dredge would also serve the proposed resort simultaneously undergoing Corps review. Without the five-mile channel, the resort would have no direct water access to the Gulf. If the dredge isn't approved, it is doubtful plans for the resort would even move forward.
The dredge would impact about 29 acres of relatively undisturbed seagrass, a valuable aquatic resource in ongoing global decline due to deteriorating water quality, development, dredging, boating and rising temperatures. Twenty-nine acres may not seem like much, but if permitted this would be the largest destruction of seagrass in the Gulf Coast in the last 50 years.
It's hard to overstate the biological significance of the area – it is a productive nursery for a variety of marine species that come to the bayou to eat, breed, calve, play and rest. That's possible only because nature has provided the area with a built-in protection for marine life: Most motorized boats cannot access the bayou except around high tide, leaving it largely isolated from human activity.
A primary concern is the considerable impact the dredge and increased boat traffic would have on the manatees in the bayou. Collisions with watercraft are the largest cause of human-related manatee deaths. Watercraft can also disrupt normal breeding behavior, calf rearing, migration and feeding.
The Corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service have already determined that the dredge is contrary to the public interest due to impacts to the aquatic environment. Rather than denying the permit outright, the Corps has worked patiently with the county and the resort applicants to rectify a host of issues, including conflicts with Florida Department of Environmental Protection permits, the lack of defined need, and deficiencies in mitigating anticipated impacts.
Before the dredge is given serious consideration, it must be demonstrated that not only is there a broader public interest in dredging the bayou – one that warrants damaging aquatic resources of national importance – but that the dredge and the adjacent resort are not interdependent.
If those hurdles can be cleared, the Corps can then begin the process of considering mitigation proposals – proposals that, to date, environmental experts have found to be inadequate.
What's clear is that at this time that baseline has not been met, and that the stated benefits of these projects do not justify the destruction of this rare ecological Shangri-La.
Jacki Lopez, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, is based in St. Petersburg. Her e-mail is [email protected]