Is there more water now in South Florida than there was 10 years ago?
It may sound like a strange question during this rain-drenched season. But that’s what government agencies, scientists and conservationists are asking as they embark on yet another massive Everglades restoration project.
Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers kicked off an online public meeting outlining a project that aims to send more water to the southern Everglades and Florida Bay, as well as to Biscayne Bay, which is battling pollution and algae blooms. The Corps opened with an unexpected statement: There was actually enough of that precious resource to go around.
Kelly Keefe, a restoration biologist and planner at the Corps, told environmentalists, scientists and others tuning in to provide feedback that the Corps believes the bucket of fresh water to quench the two coastal bays has grown over the last 10 years.
“Back then, there wasn’t enough water to achieve the objectives of the project,” she said.
If there is, that could be a major breakthrough. One of the big holes in previous plans is that engineers have long been uncertain if an ongoing array of Everglades restoration projects would create enough new water flowing south to adequately supply both bays and the coastal marshes. The Corp says that’s no longer the case for a new project called BBSEER, or Biscayne Bay Southeastern Everglades Ecosystem Restoration.
Immediately after Keefe’s comment, the meeting’s chat was flooded with questions about where exactly the additional water would come from.
“This project is shaping up to be huge; we want success for all components, we don’t want a partial success of small pieces,” said Cara Capp, senior Everglades program manager at the National Parks Conservation Association. “The big unknown is where this additional water is.”
Like everything in Everglades restoration, which aims to re-establish the natural flow of water through the unique ecosystem after decades of draining and canal-cutting, BBSEER has lofty goals.
It’s the combination of two previous projects: the second phase of the Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands restoration project to revive mangroves and seagrass beds and improve water quality; and an overhaul of the C-111 canal, a wide and deep canal cut across South Miami-Dade in the 1960s to transport rocket engines.
The Aerojet canal, as it’s also known, has been for decades sucking water that once flowed from the northern Everglades into Florida Bay through Taylor Slough, diverting the precious resource to the east and across U.S. 1 into Barnes Sound in Biscayne Bay. That structure alone is estimated to collect three-quarters of that flow. It leaves parts of the bay too salty, making it hard for fish, crabs and wading birds to use that ecosystem. In turn, Barnes Sound has sometimes been trashed with storm water runoff that flows through the canal.
The project is still in the early, conceptual stages with the Corps looking for input from the various interests that have battled over the water supply and water levels in the Everglades for decades. Growers in South Miami-Dade, for instance, worry about flooded fields and high water tables that might damage roots. Western suburbs bordering the marshes fear more streets will flood as more water flows south to the Glades. Scientists and environmentalists fear compromises will undermine the goals of restoring the natural flow of The River of Grass.
A map of the project area titled “create your alternative plan,” where participants could mark with symbols their proposals like “add water,” “new canal,” and “plug,” was reflective of the tensions between stakeholders. The results looked dramatically different.
“Don’t panic. These are not final,” read the instructions for the map.
Any actual decisions, however, remain years away. The Corps estimates it will take three years just for a planning study and that could take longer.
But another factor also provides a new sense of urgency: Climate change. Participants talked about the need for increasing water levels in key canals to fight saltwater intrusion in the Biscayne aquifer. And many mentioned “the elephant in the room”: whether sea rise might overwhelm all this complicated and very expensive stuff envisioned for construction.
“If sea level rise is inevitable, why are we proceeding with this project? (Not a question from my agency, just a question I get from the public),” Lynn Wingard, a research geologist at USGS, wrote in the meeting’s chat.
One consensus during the initial meetings was that the most updated sea level rise forecasts must be incorporated into all modeling scenarios. In written comments to the Corps, Miami-Dade’s Chief Resilience Officer Jim Murley recommended the 2019 Unified Sea Level Rise Projection for Southeast Florida published by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, “to ensure regional consistency.”
And about that extra water, the Corps’ answer, like its planning process, was wonky. Several major projects have been completed, including opening sections of the Tamiami Trail to additional water flow and finishing the first phase of a Biscayne Bay project. Also, the state just broke ground on a vast Everglades agricultural area reservoir that will clean polluted water from Lake Okeechobee before it reaches the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Spokeswoman Erica Skolte said the Corps has refined its modeling and operating plans that direct water flows in the region and now has “a robust understanding of the future conditions anticipated.”