Fla. Republican wants to toss financial lifeline to underwater lab

Sep 4, 2012 Issues: Environment

Whitney Blair Wyckoff, E&E reporter
Published: Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Aquarius Reef Base -- an undersea research facility a few miles off Key Largo, Fla. -- is a sight to behold.

In its nearly 20 years, the lab has become its own living reef, with hard and soft corals and sponges attached to its exterior. Eels live in its pipes, and fish swim through it all -- 63 feet below the water's surface.

"It's as beautiful a dive site as I've seen anywhere," said Saul Rosser, Aquarius' operations director.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, scuba dive to the Aquarius Reef Base off Key Largo, Fla. Photo courtesy of Ros-Lehtinen's congressional office.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's research station supports one of the longest-running and most detailed coral-reef-monitoring programs in the world, and it's been used to probe questions about climate change and the effectiveness of marine reserves. NASA even uses the facility to train astronauts.

It's the only operating undersea research station in the world.

But the station's future is in jeopardy. Lawmakers are poised to scrap funding for the overarching program that encompasses Aquarius, throwing the future of the base itself into question. If everything goes as expected, the base will go dark at the end of the year.

But a handful of south Florida Republicans, led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose congressional district includes Key Largo, are leading an effort to keep it afloat.

In June, Ros-Lehtinen and her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, outfitted in scuba gear, plunged into the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean and swam to the base. Once there, Ros-Lehtinen called her south Florida Republican colleagues -- Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and David Rivera -- to enlist their help to save the program, said Thomas Potts, program director of the Aquarius Reef base.

Ros-Lehtinen's interest in Aquarius is nothing new, according to current and former Aquarius staffers. Nor is her fascination with oceans, marine scientist Ellen Prager said. The congresswoman had already been active as co-chairwoman of the National Marine Sanctuary Caucus before she started working with Aquarius, she said.

Ros-Lehtinen wasn't available to speak about her interest in Aquarius, but in an emailed statement, she said her upbringing contributed to her interest in the ocean.

"Having been raised in South Florida, where the ocean is such a large part of everyone's life, taught me to appreciate it and be a good steward of our marine ecosystem," she said in the statement. "When you live in Miami, boating, snorkeling, scuba diving and other water activities become a part of your fiber and you learn to cherish and protect the beautiful yet fragile paradise we live in."

When Ros-Lehtinen visited Aquarius for the first time in 2008, it was Prager -- then the facility's chief scientist -- who took her diving to the base.

"We really had a wonderful time with her," Prager said, adding that Ros-Lehtinen showed a strong curiosity in science and oceans.

The trip yielded a positive partnership, Prager said. It was perhaps that partnership that Potts drew from when he visited Ros-Lehtinen's Washington office during Capitol Hill Ocean Week to talk about the base's predicament.

"She obviously saw something in her backyard that had a tremendous amount of value not just for her district but for the state of Florida and the nation," Potts said.

He said the talk led to the June dive.

Since that early summer dive, Ros-Lehtinen has continued to work with the base. She and Diaz-Balart, who Potts said also had a relationship with Aquarius, took another dive to raise awareness for the base -- as Rivera snorkeled above. And earlier this month, the trio of south Florida representatives powwowed with NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco to determine whether the agency's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research could channel funding into Aquarius.

Ros-Lehtinen has said in the past that the future of the base lies with private support, pointing to the new Aquarius Reef Base Foundation. Audra Santoro, a member of the foundation's board of directors, has said it is aiming to raise $750,000 to keep the base's doors open.

But according to her office, Ros-Lehtinen remains optimistic about finding federal funding for Aquarius. Though, in this year's budget-conscious climate, she concedes it's a challenge.

"Aquarius' cause is not helped by the fact that funding for this important scientific project was not supported by the White House or by NOAA, making the saving of Aquarius all the more difficult," she said in the statement.

Agencies need to learn to use their money more wisely as budgets tighten, she said. Even so, she said, Aquarius is a justifiable expense.