June 12, 2019

SOUTH FLORIDA — A new $100-million bridging project for the Tamiami Trail could go a long way toward rectifying an environmental blunder that affects Florida Bay and the Florida Keys.

With an estimated completion date in 2023, a newly funded plan to elevate and bridge 6.5 miles of U.S. 41, known as the Tamiami Trail, is designed to deliver more fresh water through Everglades National Park and into the bay.

Recent federal funding will complete a three-part effort to raise portions of the Tamiami Trail to allow more fresh water into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. Earlier work on one of the Tamiami bridges is pictured above. See story on page 3A.

“In the southern Everglades, the lack of fresh water impacts wildlife and destroys critical habitat,” said Eric Eikenberg, chief executive of the nonprofit Everglades Foundation. “In Florida Bay, it is ruining the delicate saltwater balance, killing seagrass habitat needed to support world-class recreational fishing in the Florida Keys.”

The Federal Highway Administration on June 3 revealed a $60 million grant to Everglades National Park. The Florida Legislature previously approved more than $40 million in state funding for the project.

After designs are completed, work on improvements to the historic road that provided a direct link from Miami to Tampa could begin in the summer of 2020. The FHWA describes construction of some “small bridges” along with raising and rebuilding roads to accommodate six large culverts.

That will “will open up the bottleneck, allowing the maximum amount of clean water into Everglades National Park,” Eikenberg said.

The Tamiami Trail was hailed as a major achievement after 13 years of construction that ended in 1928. But the cross-state road unintentionally but effectively created a dam that impedes the natural flow of fresh water from the Lake Okeechobee system.

It took decades for conservationists, scientists and officials to recognize ramifications that resulted in drying out large sections of the Everglades and causing Florida Bay salinity to spike.

“The park has been deprived of its fresh water for many decades and this project will allow water managers to significantly increase water flows rehydrating the 1.5 million acres of park lands, including Florida Bay,” a statement from Everglades National Park says.

The South Florida Water Management District is proposing to build an intake canal that will feed water to the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir and associated A-2 Stormwater Treatment Area as part of an overall effort to reduce discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the coastal estuaries and increase the flow of clean water to the Southern Everglades.

“Previous Tamiami Trail improvement projects included the one-mile eastern bridge completed in 2014 and the 2.3 miles of western bridges completed in April 2019,” the park says. “This project will once and for all complete 100 percent of the work required on the Tamiami Trail before water can fully flow from the northern part of the system.”

Reservoir speeds up

Two days after the announcement on Tamiami Trail, the South Florida Water Management District shortened the expected timeline for construction of the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir.

Work to clear about 690 acres of land now leased to the Florida Crystals sugar company could begin soon after federal permits are approved, a district spokesman said. That should advance work by about 18 months.

“This work will prepare the land to build a canal and perimeter levee for the project’s stormwater treatment area,” a district spokesman described. “The canal will feed water diverted from Lake Okeechobee through existing canals into the 240,000 acre-foot reservoir and stormwater treatment area. The proposed A-2 Stormwater Treatment Area will treat and cleanse water before it is sent to the Southern Everglades.”

Audubon Florida staff commended the news.

“Starting construction on this critical Everglades restoration project in October puts the district a year-and-a-half ahead than originally scheduled. This is exciting and welcome good news,” the group said. “While the rest of the project is built, this smaller component will help augment the capacity to send freshwater flows south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay now.”

“This urgently needed project has a lot of moving parts and will take time to complete as South Florida can ill-afford any delays,” Audubon Florida Executive Director Julie Wraithmell said. Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature “provided real leadership this year with historic appropriations to Everglades restoration, and Audubon is thrilled to see the District translating this urgency into action.”

The overall EAA Reservoir project includes a planned water-storage area on more than 10,000 acres, up to 23 feet deep, south of Lake Okeechobee. The A-2 treatment area will have vegetation intended to cleanse lake water before sending it south.

The EAA reservoir aims to retain fresh water needed by the Everglades and Florida Bay ecosystem in dry months, while reducing harmful freshwater discharges into marine estuaries during the rainy season.