2018 Intern Blog Series – Week 2: Infiltrating FIU & Storming the Pontoon Boat

2018 Intern Blog Series – Week 2: Infiltrating FIU & Storming the Pontoon Boat

Categories: Blog


Brian Garrett, Wildlife Biologist for the South Florida Water Management District, giving us an inside look at Stormwater Treatment Area 2.

Due to the Memorial Day holiday weekend, we jump-started our week on Tuesday with a tour of Florida’s Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs) with Brian Garrett, a wildlife biologist for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). During the tour, we got a glimpse of the Everglades’ STAs – the largest artificially constructed wetlands in the world, built specifically to counteract increasing freshwater phosphorus levels from fertilizer runoff.


A cell filled with submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) which is used to filter out dissolved phosphorus from a water profile.

Phosphorous is a natural limiting factor of the Everglades, and when the nutrient becomes abundant, cattails begin to outcompete the native plant species. This contributes to blue-green algae blooms that strip freshwater of oxygen and devastate fishing stocks. STAs use plants to remove the phosphorus from the water, making them critical to preserving the Everglades ecosystem. Since their introduction, 90% of the Everglades now meets state water quality standards. During our visit, some of the STAs seemed empty, but I later found out that they were brimming with blankets of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAVs) where pockets of cattails were holding the underwater plants in place.

Another benefit of STAs is that water filtered through fields of cattails can settle, allowing suspended solids to become a part of the wetland’s sediment, which helps remove water turbidity. The water is then moved into cells with SAVs, which effectively filter out dissolved phosphorus.

One of the pump stations used in Stormwater Treatment Area 2 to transport water between cells.

STAs have been instrumental in bettering water quality for the greater Everglades watershed. Yet current and historic management practices have still had detrimental effects on the Everglades ecosystem. Today, only 50% of the Everglades are left, and most of it has been severely compromised by a loss of biodiversity.

Natalie on our airboat tour of Water Conservation Area 2A.

This point was driven home during our tour of Water Conservation Area 2A. Too much water and phosphorus have led to a cattail-dominated ecosystem almost devoid of tree islands (only 17 of the original >100 remain). Tree islands, areas of higher elevation that are places for alligators, birds, and other species to nest and take refuge, have long been drowned out. Staple wetland plant species like spadderdock and water lilies were not nearly as common as what we saw the week before in the southern part of WCA3A. Comparing these two WCAs demonstrated the negative effects of compartmentalization on Everglades ecology.

Our view from the pontoon boat during our trip at Biscayne Bay.

That aside, The Everglades Foundation has also partnered with FIU’s Center of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) Program, allowing us to join the university on their tour of Biscayne Bay. The trip was beautiful; we had a panoramic view of the Miami skyline, and could see where the saltwater of the Atlantic met the freshwater of the Miami River. During this trip, we were able to see some practical applications of our majors at work through the ecological surveying and water quality sampling we completed. After seining and trawling on our small pontoon boat, we sorted through the various species captured: sea robins, sharp nosed puffer fish, gray triggerfish, blue crabs, balloon fish, red snappers, and white grunts.

Bella with one of the red snappers we caught from our trawl.

Currently, Biscayne Bay is being restored as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). With the channelization of the Everglades watershed, a levee system, and roads, salinity levels have become much higher in Biscayne Bay. This happens because old surface water flows have been blocked and abrupt changes to the salinity of the system occur during wet season, when runoff from the canals increases. Currently, work is being done to improve 9,630 acres within Biscayne Bay, by reducing the point source inflows from canals, better managing freshwater entering the park to stabilize and reduce salinity levels, and restore previously lost coastal Everglades wetlands.

A balloonfish, one of the fish native to the Biscayne Bay region.

Phase I has been completed thus far, which has led to the restoration of 400 acres of freshwater habitat. This has helped restore widespread natural freshwater flows into Biscayne Bay and Biscayne National Park from three different coastal areas. As of this past January, a local funding initiative request has been submitted for the start-up of Phase II. With so much media attention being focused on the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee estuaries, it was easy for me to overlook this beautiful preserve, but nevertheless, restoration efforts are in progress, and we were able to get a look at yet another one of the 68 projects that CERP encompasses.

From left to right: Cady, Bella, Zion, and Natalie during the Biscayne Bay tour.

This week we got to witness the beginning of so many solutions: stormwater treatment areas constructed to reduce phosphorus pollution entering the Everglades, restored wetlands seeking to restore historic freshwater flow to Biscayne Bay, and others. It’s been a wild ride. We were also able to acclimate to The Everglades Foundation and work on our individual projects.

Until next week, this is the internship team signing off!