Monday, August 30, 2010

The Road to Restoration

When I picture South Florida development in the early twentieth century, Pixar’s Toy Story comes to mind. Specifically that scene where the twisted neighborhood menace, Sid, blows up his toys and then haphazardly puts them back together. The result, a tangled mess of limbs and appendages painfully trying to pass as functioning toys. Throughout the carnage, his parents, the supposed voices of reason and control, are nowhere to be seen. Looking at a map which highlights all the canals and modified waterways of South Florida, early Floridian pioneers' lofty goals were not so far from the misguided endeavors of our animated friend. And you have to ask yourself, where were Florida’s voices of reason in all of this?

It’s no mystery that the hydrology of the state is completely off-kilter. In fact, the state of Florida is now spending hundreds of millions of dollars to right the wrongs of unabashed development along vital wetlands. A complex mosaic of private and public lands lead from the headwaters of Lake Okechobee down to the southern tip of Florida through what was once called “the river of grass.” These little puzzle pieces are more than just parcels of land and obstructions to water flow; they represent interest groups that run the gamut from Native American tribes, to farmers, to generations of families. Difficult doesn’t even begin to describe the immensity of the challenges that the state faces to restore the Everglades. Little by little, however, South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) is starting to tackle the problem of inadequate freshwater flow into the historic watershed.

To break it down as simply as I can, freshwater was diverted away from South Florida in order to drain what would become fertile land for agriculture. This water would then go either to the cities or out to the ocean. Losing a significant amount of freshwater would then allow saltwater to creep in and destroy habitat for wading birds, fish, and plant life along the coast. Our studies with National Audubon are to prove this shift and thus shape policy to get more freshwater back into the system. More freshwater means more aquatic vegetation, which means more fish, which then means more birds.

Map courtesy of SFWMD shows the C-111 canal and its proximity to Taylor Slough. 
The green area represents Everglades National Park.

One of the major canals that we are concerned with is called the Aerojet Canal, aka the C-111. In the 60s Aerojet dug the C-111 in order to ship massive space shuttle engines (21ft in diameter, too large for trains) out to Biscayne Bay and then up to Canaveral. Just before it could start manufacturing the engines, however, NASA pulled the contract and went with a smaller, less expensive engine, leaving South Florida with this canal. The C-111 is important for Everglades restoration because it draws a significant amount of freshwater from the ground and diverts it away from its historical path along Taylor Slough.

Last week, Tavernier Science Center was invited to go out to the C-111 spreader canal project site to see what three years of planning, 25 million dollars, and our research was going towards.

Workers spread concrete in 50ft sections along the C-111 spreader canal project.

SFWMD exploded a hole in the limestone bedrock to build this pump station. They have to drain the
water in four foot increments then patch the leaks until they get down to the 11-foot thick concrete base
which they poured while completely underwater. 

Project manager Sam Palermo, gave us a tour of the site and explained how the spreader canal project would redirect water from the C-111 and spill over into Taylor Slough. Two pumps bring water (100,000 gallons per minute) from the C-111 down the lined channels into the retaining cells instead of rushing out to the ocean. SFWMD would then backfill the remaining C-111 canal in order to stop it from draining surrounding lands. The idea seems simple enough, although water management in Florida has never been an easy task. Sam, with years of experience improving the headwaters of Lake Okechobee, states that it's taken a long time to get the project through legislation so they've had ample time to work out the kinks. 

A map of the Areojet waterway and pump station shows the beginning of the second phase of construction.

We are all very excited and optimistic to start noting the hydrological changes once this project is completed in July of 2011. If this program succeeds, it just might be the impetus to trigger more large-scale projects farther north. I am amazed at how much money and time it costs to undo the ill-conceived plans of Florida’s corporate expansion, but hopeful, because at least we are spending the time and money. 


  1. Mac

    Thank you for your interest in the C-111 project and how it will help return water to the Everglades. Citizens' interest is key to making sure we keep up the good momentum we have achieved in restoration. As a Miami-Dade Countian, this project has been a special priority for me. Thanks for all you do.

    Eric Buermann
    Chairman, Governing Board
    South Florida Water Management District

  2. You guys deserve all the credit. I'm just amazed at how well you plan and execute such a large project over a relatively small amount of time. I can't wait to see what's next!