FLORIDA CITY, Fla. — The first phase of a long-awaited Florida Everglades restoration project appears to be stopping the loss of fresh water from the fragile ecosystem long choked and drained by neighboring development, officials said Friday.
The project is one of dozens that aim to restore the natural flow of fresh water through the Everglades into the ailing Florida Bay.
Construction began on the so-called C-111 Spreader Canal in 2010. A rush of water Friday afternoon through a new pumping station marked the project’s official dedication by the South Florida Water Management District, which leads Everglades restoration efforts for the state.
It plugs an existing canal and pumps 290 million gallons of water each day to build a kind of wall of water at the eastern edge of the Everglades National Park, which has lost too much water to a flood control system and other development in Miami-Dade County.
“It keeps the water that’s the right water in the right place and avoids those losses,” said Tommy Strowd, the South Florida Water Management District’s director of operations, maintenance and construction.
Since testing began on the C-111 project a year ago, lower water levels have been recorded in the flood control system — meaning the barrier is stopping freshwater from seeping out of the park, Dan Kimball, the park superintendent.
Also, by the end of South Florida’s rainy season, water levels in the slough leading into Florida Bay were higher than they had been for “a long, long, long time,” which park hydrologists partly attributed to the project, Kimball said.
“Restoration is not an idea — it’s actually happening,” Kimball said.
Though it will be a few years before the success of the project can be measured adequately, the early signs show that it will have a significant benefit for the bay, officials said. Project operation will be evaluated yearly.
High salinity levels in the bay threaten marine life — and therefore South Florida’s fishing industry — and experts have warned about a complete ecosystem collapse in its shallow waters.
“It’s starving for fresh water,” Kimball said.
The $26 million project falls under the multibillion-dollar Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, approved by Congress in 2000.
But little progress has been made, as projects are delayed by funding shortfalls, political infighting and legal challenges. A congressionally mandated review last year concluded that the outlook for the Everglades remained dire.
The wetlands have been damaged for decades by the intrusion of farms, development, pollution and urban runoff. Dikes, dams and canals have effectively drained much of the swamp.
Getting the water flow corrected is seen as the key to the ecosystem’s survival.
Environmental activists hail the C-111 project as vital to the health of Florida Bay, but caution that much more restoration needs to be done.
CERP calls for the state and federal governments to split the cost of Everglades restoration 50-50, but the congressional authorization that’s required for the U.S. government to meet its obligations has lagged.
“The state has been working, but the feds haven’t,” because their projects still await authorization, said Kahlil Kettering of the National Parks Conservation Association.