Tamiami Trail blocks flow to Florida Bay

OKEECHOBEE — Moving water south from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades and on to Florida Bay is complicated by man made dams, dikes and canals.

One of the biggest hurdles to the success of Everglades restoration is the Tamiami Trail. The road, constructed between 1915 and 1928, connects Tampa to Miami, and was originally hailed as a great achievement. (Once again, it seemed like such a good idea at the time.)

The unintended consequence of the road is that it acts as a man-made dam, holding back the sheet flow from the Everglades to Florida Bay, which has suffered from periodic localized droughts.

When the road was first built, if water levels were high, the state just let it flood and closed the road until water receded. The traffic of today’s Florida requires the busy road stays open, which means water levels are adjusted elsewhere in the system to keep the road dry. That means less freshwater for Florida Bay, which raises the salinity levels, resulting in environmental problems. It also means that because water can’t move south, more freshwater goes into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, where it causes environmental problems by lowering the salinity levels there.

Scientists and water managers have been aware of the problem for a long time. They have proposed solutions using bridges to raise the roadway and allow water to pass underneath. But as often happens with Everglades projects, funding issues caused delays, and progress comes in small steps.

In 2005, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed an 11-mile bridge west of Miami. Congress eventually allocated funding for a one-mile bridge in 2008. The one mile bridge opened in March 2013.

In 2016, $180 million was allocated with the cost shared 50-50 by U.S. Department of the Interior and the State of Florida for a 2.6 mile bridge, about four and half miles west of the one-mile bridge.

When completed, the total 3.6 miles of raised highway will help restore some of the natural water flow, but it’s only about a third of the water flow area proposed by the Corps of Engineers.

Small steps.

More help for Florida Bay

On Jan. 12, 2017, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board also approved several significant construction contracts to send more water to Florida Bay. These project components received federal permitting approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in December. (see chart/map at bottom of page)

“Today’s action by the Board allows us to build on work already underway to deliver real benefits to Florida Bay,” said SFWMD Governing Board Chairman Dan O’Keefe at the Jan. 12 meeting. “We appreciate the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ cooperation in the permitting process needed for our Florida Bay plan.”

SFWMD Governing Board’s Florida Bay plan will send billions more gallons of fresh water each year into Taylor Slough and on to Florida Bay.

According to the SFWMD, this means substantial flows of fresh water will reach the Bay to help reduce salinity levels and protect seagrasses that are repeatedly damaged by localized droughts.

The plan for Florida Bay was developed out of the work of the South Dade Study, a public process to improve flood control in southern Miami-Dade County while directing much-needed water to natural areas.

Approved permits from the Corps authorize SFWMD to:
• Rebuild a section of the L-31 West Levee and Weir;
• Install 10 plugs in the L-31 West Canal;
• Seal the discharge basin at the S-332D Pump Station to reduce seepage.

“I echo the call of my constituents in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties to make more fresh water available to Florida Bay a top priority,” said SFWMD Governing Board member Federico Fernandez Jan. 12. “Today signals the start of real progress to help save this treasured ecosystem. This board is committed to getting projects built and working to improve South Florida’s water bodies.”

Florida Bay

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