May 15, 2019

MONROE COUNTY — Residents along Upper and Middle Keys canals clogged by Hurricane Irma sediment hailed the arrival of barge workers last week.

“They’re making a difference already,” said Robert Moser, president of the Lower Matecumbe Beach Property Owners Association. “With every scoop that comes out of the water, I’m ecstatic.”

Work is being performed under a federal Emergency Watershed Protection Program grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. About half of the $45.8 million was used to remove marine debris like sunken trees, cars and boats that the hurricane tossed into the water.

The second phase approved 10 of 34 nominated canals for sediment removal, a more costly project than removing debris. Three approved canals are in Marathon and two are in Islamorada.

Five Big Pine Key canals will be dredged but are awaiting permit approval. The grant was scheduled to expire next week but Monroe County officials have filed for a 90-day extension.

“Everybody here is happy, no complaints,” Moser said of 85 homeowners along Islamorada’s Iroquois-Sunset canal. Before the dredging, several vessels were unable to safely navigate the waterway, he said.

“The process includes the use of a long-reach excavator mounted on a barge, with a roll-off container for initial dewatering of the sediment,” Monroe County information officer Kristen Livengood said. After the sediment dries, it will be used for fill.

A turbidity screen was placed across the canal entrance to protect nearshore waters. That means the canal will remain closed for the duration of the project with no boats allowed to enter or leave. A possible exception for Memorial Day weekend reportedly is being considered.

“The Emergency Watershed Protection can help relieve imminent hazards to life and property caused by floods, fires, windstorms and hurricanes,” said an NRCS spokesman.

The dredging targets areas of the most concern. Under program restrictions, some canal areas will not be fully restored.

Monroe County, designated as the project recipient, is seeking addition debris-removal work more another 224 Keys canals after additional storm debris was identified.