South Florida

Canal built for rockets stands in path of Everglades renewal

FLOODED: Sam Accursio, owner of Sam S. Accursio and Sons Farms Inc., examines his field of pickle plants, which has recently had portions flooded because of water-table tests being run in the nearby Everglades.
FLOODED: Sam Accursio, owner of Sam S. Accursio and Sons Farms Inc., examines his field of pickle plants, which has recently had portions flooded because of water-table tests being run in the nearby Everglades. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

Of the many engineering atrocities inflicted on the Everglades, the C-111 ranks high on the list. The canal was cut across deep South Miami-Dade in the 1960s for the Aerojet Corp., which was then building moon rocket engines so big they had to be barged.

 The rocket plant closed decades ago. The C-111, also known as the Aerojet canal, has remained, sucking water that once flowed into Florida Bay and piping it 20 miles the wrong way, east across U.S. 1 into Barnes Sound.

Now, after years of delay, the South Florida Water Management District is poised to begin healing the unnatural wound of the C-111 with $25 million in projects.

By the multibillion-dollar measuring stick of Everglades restoration, the construction work is simple and cheap. But the first step toward fixing the C-111 still faces myriad challenges, making it a microcosm of the broader effort to revive the River of Grass.

Farmers worry raising water in the Glades will flood fields. Environmentalists worry the marsh and bay won't get better if water isn't raised high enough. A commercial fish farm, as well as the nesting grounds of a tiny federally endangered bird, are in the way. The Army Corps of Engineers, federal partners in the restoration, is running years behind on legally required planning.

"And this is one of the easy ones," district Executive Director Carol Ann Wehle said.

  Next month, the district's governing board will vote on three contracts for the first phase of the C-111 overhaul. They postponed the decision this month when a farmer challenged a key state permit.

   The C-111 is so wide and deep that Everglades National Park hydrologists estimate it collects three-quarters of the water that once flowed south through Taylor Slough into Florida Bay. That leaves parts of the bay too salty and a poor environment for fish, crabs and wading birds. In turn, Barnes Sound, where the C-111 floodgates spill, has been periodically trashed with storm water.

 Initial work calls for 590 acres of "cells," or retention ponds, to hold storm water in an area known as the Frog Pond, and two new pumping stations. Berms and plugs would be added in the C-111 and two connecting canals. Then, water levels in the southernmost canals will be slowly raised -- one-tenth of a foot a year for five years -- to assess the impacts.

 The goal is to create what engineers call an hydrologic divide, or an underground wedge of water to blunt the canal's pull though the porous limestone aquifer.

  "It's a good start," said Robert Johnson, director of science for Everglades National Park. "It's really just diverting water to keep more of it in the park. Eventually we're going to need a lot more coming from the north."

 FARMERS OBJECT

Farmers are dubious. Diego Rodriguez, who owns about 300 acres, filed a legal notice objecting to raising canal levels unless the district agreed to compensate him for any damage. Neither Rodriguez nor his attorney returned calls.

Sam Accursio, whose family has farmed in South Miami-Dade for decades, shares the concerns. He said similar water retention areas built years ago, combined with ground water tinkering by the Corps -- mostly intended to protect the nesting grounds of the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow -- have already created ripple effects.

He said one 40-acre field off Krome Avenue at Southwest 168th Street where he grows pickling cucumbers has lost seven acres from regular flooding.

"It has taken our driest pieces of property and made them our wettest," he said. "When you raise water levels three miles west of where I am, it's going to affect me."

 COSTLY DEAL

Water managers believe they can resolve the concerns -- but at the potentially high cost of agreeing to buy acres if they turn too soggy.

Megan Tinsley, Everglades science coordinator for Audubon of Florida, said the projects won't help if the farmers' concerns derail plans to  raise the water levels.

 "You can't just build this and spend taxpayer money and not realize any environmental benefits," she said.

"If it takes the district buying out ag lands in two or three years, then that's OK."

There are two other obstacles on the ground as well -- most notably, the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow.

About 3,000 of the tiny birds live in six areas across Everglades National Park, and their need for six months of dry nesting grounds greatly complicates restoration planning.

The sparrow has been at the heart of several lawsuits, including one filed this month by two environmental groups against federal wildlife managers, seeking to restore 70,000 acres as critical habitat.

With the C-111 project seasonally flooding 1,600 acres of sparrow habitat, the plan is to create new nesting grounds of the same size nearby, hoping the birds will move.

Paul Sousa, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the project is expected to produce only 12 additional days of standing water, a slight impact he believes will be offset as Everglades projects come on line.

"Every ounce of science we have done on this front says restoration is the best hope for all these endangered species we manage, including that little bird," he said.

As for the fish farm, which has operated for more than a decade on land leased from the district, the initial call was that it no longer fit in with C-111 plans. Blue Heron Farms, which is seeking a lease extension, hopes to persuade water managers otherwise.

Then there is the not-insignificant legal technicality of starting construction before the Corps had formally completed its implementation report. Planning began in 2001 and has run through numerous alterations that chopped the project into smaller phases intended to, at least theoretically, expedite things.

PUSHED BACK

Corps project manager Kim Taplin said top brass is working to speed up the process but a new demand from Congress for peer review has pushed things back to at least December 2010.

Water managers paid a big price last time restoration work began without Corps paperwork in hand. The district halted a massive Everglades reservoir, blaming a lawsuit brought by environmentalists over the federal rules.

This month, the board approved the final installment of a $25 million settlement with the contractor for stopping the work.

Water managers, mindful of maintaining support from the Obama administration and Congress, said it's worth the risk to start breaking ground on the C-111.

  "If we can't build this thing," said water management district board member Shannon Estenoz, "I'm not sure what we can build."

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