March 19, 2013

A bridge to help heal the Everglades

After nearly 90 years, the asphalt dam across the Everglades known as the Tamiami Trial is finally going to be removed and more water will begin flowing later this year.

It was touted as a triumph of modern engineering when it opened in 1928, a road across the once-impassable Everglades that took 2.6 million sticks of dynamite and 13 years to construct.

On Tuesday, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar led a celebration of a long-awaited, different sign of progress on Tamiami Trial: the completion of a one-mile-long bridge designed to begin healing the ecological wounds inflicted by a road that has blocked the flow of the Everglades for nearly 90 years.

“It truly is a crown jewel of an achievement,” said Salazar, who snipped a red-ribbon, then took a ceremonial first drive across the span in a hybrid SUV.

The $81 million bridge, scheduled to open to daily traffic in a few weeks, ranks among the most significant Everglades projects to date. It sets the stage for the first breach later this year of a historic road that has been far more than just a lime rock-and-asphalt barrier to reviving the shrunken, struggling River of Grass. The effort to get more water under the bumpy two-lane black top, originally launched by Congress in 1989, has encapsulated all the numbing delays, doubts and disputes that have dogged the broader plans to restore the Everglades.

The bridge took four years to build — but it was a two-decade battle to simply get it started.

“It’s a day that a lot of folks thought they maybe would never see,’’ said Julie Hill-Gabriel, Everglades policy coordinator for Audubon of Florida. In all, about 200 environmentalists, federal officials, park managers and rangers came out to mark the milestone and take in a new postcard vista. For the first time, motorists can view vast, bird-dotted marshes past the L-29 levee to the north and a tangled jungle lining the Trail to the south.

By itself, the bridge won’t initially make much of a difference to the health of the Everglades – at least until crews later this year remove the old road bed it replaces just a few miles west of Krome Avenue, which will boost current water flows by as much as 15 percent. When the project is completed by raising and reinforcing about 10 miles of the adjacent Trail to handle higher water levels, peak rainy season water flows could nearly double compared to the volume that passes through 19 culverts built under the old road.

That should provide some relief to one of the driest swaths of the Everglades fed by the Shark River Slough, once a major artery of life-giving water. The Trail, along with levees and drainage canals built in the 1960s, choked water flow to a fifth of its historic volume and profoundly altered the landscape, killing off marsh plants and driving away wildlife, with wading birds dropping as much as 90 percent in the park. The ripple effects extended down to a too-salty Florida Bay plagued by sea-grass die-offs and algae blooms.

“The big story is that water levels in the wetlands can go up and that’s a very good thing,’’ said Tom Van Lent, senior scientist for the Everglades Foundation. Re-establishing the broad “sheet flow” of the River of Grass – rather than gushing water through narrow culverts – also will start to help recreate natural conditions that shaped wildlife patterns and the “ridge and slough” geography that defines the Everglades marsh, he said.

“Besides just getting water across the road, there is a lot of stuff in that water: fish, turtles, nutrients, sediments,’’ Van Lent said. “Anything that is in that water needs to get to the other side of the road.”

Still, while the bridge is a milestone, park managers and scientists acknowledge it’s also only a stepping stone, one piece of a complex multi-billion-dollar overhaul of Everglades plumbing that will take decades to complete.

Just for starters, to move the massive amount of water scientists say is needed to restore the Glades, a lot more bridging will be needed.

The Interior Department, which oversees national parks, drew up blueprints in 2010 calling for an additional 5.5 miles of bridging. The $310 million plan, which would erect four more bridges of varying length along the Trail, has been “authorized” by Congress and is currently being designed.

Salazar, who is stepping down as Interior secretary after championing restoration in 11 visits to the Everglades, said the Obama administration intends to “shake the trees’’ looking for money for the work, with one possible source the hundreds of millions of dollars coming to the state from the settlement of the BP oil spill in the Gulf. But it remains uncertain if a divided Congress dealing with sequester budget cuts will sign off on the proposal.

For now, there’s also not nearly enough water to send south through the Everglades and much of what there is isn’t clean enough for the sensitive Everglades, tainted by too much phosphorus, a nutrient in farm, pasture and yard runoff that is damaging to sensitive Everglades plants. Now, much of it gets diverted down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, where it has triggered fish kills and algae blooms. Florida’s plans to build more storage areas and artificial marshes to absorb the pollution, already delayed by a decade, have been pushed back another decade under the state’s latest $880 million clean-up expansion plan.

Another on-going $1 billion plan to add reservoirs and speed up work on the Central Everglades is on the fast-track – but won’t work without additional bridging on the Trail. Beyond that, there are still unresolved technical questions. Raising water levels in the Everglades could raise ground water levels in surrounding lands, including the flood-prone suburbs of west Miami-Dade, or even divert water away from the county’s major well field and Biscayne Bay.

Still, for every other project to work, raising more of the Tamiami Trail is critical.

“There is no middle ground. Without a fix to this issue, Everglades restoration can’t go anywhere,’’ said Van Lent. “The one-mile bridge got us as far as you can go. Now, you have to do the rest of the road.’’

Environmentalists, park managers and federal officials hope fixing the rest of the road will prove easier than the first mile.

The bridge is the last major piece in the Modified Water Deliveries project, originally approved by Congress in 1989 as part of plan to restore water flows to a newly acquired 107,000-acre section of Everglades National Park. But “Mod Waters,” as it came to be known, became mired by shifts in restoration plans, disputes over flood protection for residents in a rural section once known as the 8.5 Square Mile Area and multiple lawsuits – four of them by the Miccosukee Tribe.

The Tribe, arguing that construction would violate an array of environmental rules and that a bridge was a waste of taxpayer money, eventually won an injunction in 2008 from a federal judge to block the work. The tribe, which did not respond to a request for comment on the new bridge, has long argued that a $17 million plan to clean out the existing culverts would provide faster relief for high water damaging tribal land, tree islands and wildlife north of the Trail.

The Sierra Club, meanwhile, complained the bridge was inadequate, championing a $1.6 billion, 11-mile “skyway” that was ultimately rejected as too expensive.

In 2008, the National Research Council summed things up in a report calling the project delays “one of the most discouraging stories in Everglades restoration.”

But the gridlock was finally broken just after that scathing report with an obscure amendment slipped into a federal spending measure. It granted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers an extraordinary exemption from federal environmental laws, lifting the injunction and finally allowing the bridge to move forward.

A handful of additional restoration projects also have broken ground since, giving advocates and engineers that have devoted decades, even entire careers to the Everglades a sense that all the talk of restoration is at long last becoming reality. For all the concerns, the mood on the bridge was upbeat, elevated by flocks of ibises and pairs of wood storks drifting by.

“We’ve been talking about getting more water to the park for my entire lifetime,’’ said Neal McAliley, chairman of the South Florida National Parks Trust. “Today, we’re doing it.’’

Park Superintendent Dan Kimball said his father, a 93-year old civil engineer and World War II veteran, helped him put the battle over the bridge in perspective when he showed him the plans several years ago to build one and then push for more in the future. His father, Kimball said, called the first bridge a “beachhead” – a critical foothold to wage a wider battle.

“Today,’’ Kimball said, “I’m pleased to report that our ‘beach-head’ is now secured and we’re moving out and on.’’

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