When Miami-Dade County commissioners vote Wednesday on whether to allow the Dolphin Expressway to snake across wetlands where the federal government has bought large tracts as part of Everglades protection plans, one question remains unclear: whether the federal government will agree to surrender the land.
Over decades of trying to fix the Everglades, the Department of Interior has agreed only once before to lifting restrictions on four parcels. And that deal enabled restoration work elsewhere.
But if commissioners clear the way for a $650 million highway extension of State Road 836, the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority will need to acquire many more acres in the Bird Drive wetlands outside Miami-Dade's urban development boundary in a rare bid to swap wetlands for pavement. The request would be almost unprecedented. Other than the deal approved this year that lifted restrictions on about 45 acres in the basin and Broward wetlands, Interior officials have only agreed to two other limited transfers of deed restrictions, said Stephen Collins, real estate director for the South Florida Water Management District.
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Collins could not speculate on the likelihood of Interior officials signing off on the highway deal, or the district's position since MDX planners have not settled on a final route for what the county is calling the Kendall Parkway. Federal officials did not respond to a request for comment. However, soon after he took office, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke quickly began rolling back protections for private land.
A public hearing on the proposal begins at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in commissioner chambers at Government Center.
Opposition to the project, and support championed by Mayor Carlos Gimenez, has been fierce in the weeks leading up to the hearing, including a musical spoof to counter an MDX web site promoting the highway with an online petition.
Gimenez has made the extension a top priority for his final term in office in an effort to relieve the paralyzing gridlock at the county's south end while permanently protecting 1,000 acres of adjacent wetlands. Commuters spend up to three hours commuting to and from work,according to MDX.
But critics say extending a highway ranked among the 50 worst in the U.S. beyond the urban development border, rather than focusing on the county's SMART transit plan, will only invite more sprawl. It would also damage an area long considered a buffer between the county's dense development and the Everglades, they say, and critical to recharging drinking water supplies in South Florida's shallow aquifer.
"The Everglades doesn’t just end where political boundaries begin," said Sierra Club representative Diana Umpierre. "It's a buffer that's really important."
On Wednesday, two dozen environmental groups signed a letter opposing the plan. Attorneys representing several environmental groups also submitted objections explaining why the project undermines the county's comprehensive plan and questioning the absence of firm plans.
"The shifting proposals continue to suggest this concept is not definite enough to be acted upon," they wrote.
Land in the basin was first targeted for one of the earlier Everglades restoration projects that created an East Coast buffer to protect marshes from their urban neighbors. Later, when a full blueprint for restoring the Everglades was finally crafted in 2000, water managers decided to use the basin for a deep, four-square mile reservoir aimed at providing more water to marshes cut off from water flowing south by decades of flood control. Between the 1990s and early 2000s, water managers acquired nearly 1,400 acres.
But they eventually decided that South Florida's porous aquifer was too leaky for a reservoir and instead revised the project to provide water to flow through the area. In 2011, they agreed that only about 340 acres along the western edge was needed.
However, the area remained critical to future Everglades restoration. When a task force created by Gimenez looked at the basin last year, the majority recommended keeping the area outside the urban development boundary. As sea level rises, more freshwater than previously estimated under Everglades restoration will likely be needed to beat back saltwater intrusion making buffer areas even more critical.
Critics have also raised questions about a wellfield in the basin. A wellfield protection area to safeguard drinking water falls within its boundaries. But county environmental resources chief Lee Hefty said he doesn't expect the project to interfere with the wellfield.
"However, drainage structures would need to comply with county criteria to protect water quality," he said in an email. "DERM would require that the project include features to maintain hydrology in the adjoining wetlands through the installation of culverts or elevating portions of the roadway to allow for water and wildlife movement."
Because MDX has not settled on a final route, it's not clear what land will be affected. But according to a district map, any direct route would need to cut through land purchased by a federal farm bill for the East Coast buffer. Recognizing that plans change, the bill allows the water management district to use the land for other projects or sell it after repaying the federal government. But Interior officials have usually insisted that swaps not take away from the net total of wetlands.
So far, officials have only agreed to release 12.5 acres in the basin as part of a land swap to expand a stormwater treatment area in Palm Beach County, Collins explained. Federal officials justified the deal because it led to a swap that expanded the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife environmental assessment. As part of that deal, federal officials also warned that any future change in use would need to be evaluated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies.
"Any future change in land use would constitute a separate action," officials said, "for which appropriate assessments and reviews would be required."