June 12, 2019

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press
Tiki Fiorentino, above, says a Plantation Key canal resembled 'a big aquarium' before Hurricane Irma turned the waterway into a muddy and stagnant mess. Islamorada officials are investigating whether the channel can be cleared. A photo of the canal before Irma is at left.

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press Tiki Fiorentino, above, says a Plantation Key canal resembled 'a big aquarium' before Hurricane Irma turned the waterway into a muddy and stagnant mess. Islamorada officials are investigating whether the channel can be cleared. A photo of the canal before Irma is at left.

ISLAMORADA — Residents along a Plantation Key canal enjoyed swimming and frolicking with fish in a clear basin they called “a big aquarium.”

Then came Hurricane Irma, which piled up sand at the canal mouth, already partially blocked by underwater boulders.

FREE PRESS
A Plantation Key canal, seen after Hurricane Irma blocked tidal flushing, lost its clear waters and turned muddy.

TIKI FIORENTINO/Contributed
A Plantation Key canal, seen before Hurricane Irma blocked tidal flushing, was clear and attractive to fish and marine mammals, residents say.

“Now the water is brown and nasty,” resident Tiki Fiorentino said. “It’s an environmental disaster. Sargassum [seaweed] gets trapped and fish are dying.”

Islamorada Village Councilman Ken Davis and Environmental Resources Manager Pete Frezza agree and are looking for a way to secure state permits to restore the natural water flow.

The oceanside canal near mile marker 88 was dredged as a quarry about a half-century ago. At some point in the 1970s, a property owner at the canal entrance dropped boulders to the bottom to discourage large vessels and commercial traffic.

“The canal was never plugged,” Fiorentino said. “The water flow was restricted, but there was always a water exchange. Small boats had access at high tide. Now it doesn’t flow like it used to.”

“You could see to the bottom,” neighbor Jodi Yeager said. “There were manatees, dolphins, reef fish and tarpon.”

The aftermath of the September 2017 hurricane greatly reduced the tidal flushing. More rocks and portions of a collapsed concrete dock further limited tidal flows and flushing. Seaweed gets trapped, vegetation degrades and water clarity has become a long-ago memory.

With poor canal water quality, the question becomes whether the channel can be reopened.

Waters surrounding the Florida Keys are legally designated as Outstanding Florida Waters, deemed as “worthy of special protection because of their natural attributes.”

Davis and Frezza met with staff from Monroe County, the state Department of Environmental Protection and other agencies on permitting and regulatory issues.

“We’re trying to understand what the process would be to get permits for removal” of the blockage, Frezza said. “It’s a tricky subject because that hasn’t been done before. … We believe this may be a unique situation where it could lead to improved water quality.”

“I’m optimistic,” Davis said. “Gus Rios at DEP deserves a lot of credit for working with us. They have listened. I think state agencies are going to start looking at the environmental hazards created by these partially plugged canals.”

Field inspections and water-quality tests will be undertaken before any decisions are reached.

“We didn’t put the sand there, but this has caused real ecosystem damage,” Fiorentino said. “We want our canal back.”

kwadlow@keysnews.com