If the Everglades could talk, one answer to "how do you spell relief?" would be "water." After years of wrangling, a contract has been awarded to replace a one-mile section of the highway known as the Tamiami Trail with a bridge. The work will allow badly needed water to begin flowing again to part of Everglades National Park.
The Tamiami Trail was built in the 1920s to allow vehicle travel between Tampa and Miami, early hotspots of population growth in southern Florida. From a transportation standpoint it met that goal, but in recent years the highway has been identified as a serious threat to the health of the Everglades.
The biggest problem with the Tamiami Trail isn't traffic or pollution, it's the highway itself. The elevated roadbed functions as a dike, interrupting the natural flow of fresh water southward into the Everglades. The result has been described as "the most formidable barrier to fresh water flows to northeastern Everglades National Park," and water is critical to the health of this ecosystem.
"Reclaiming" the wetlands to allow development has been part of the story of south Florida for well over a century, and the Tamiami Trail is only part of the problem when it comes to the challenge of providing adequate water for the Everglades. There are complex and often conflicting demands for flood control, economic development and water for domestic and commercial use.
The titles of previous attempts by federal and state politicians to "manage" the wetlands of south Florida provide some background for the current issues. They include the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act of 1850 and the Board of Internal Improvements (1851). The Board of Drainage Commissioners was created by the state in 1905 ""to establish a system of canals, levees, drains, dikes, and reservoirs...to drain and reclaim the swamp and overflowed lands within the State of Florida." The website for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan includes a brief and very readable history of water control in the region.
Efforts to correct the problems in the Everglades resulting from the dredging and filling for the Tamiami Trail have been under discussion for years. In 1989, Congress approved the Everglades National Park Protection and Expansion Act; among its provisions are modifications to the Central and Southern Florida Project to improve water deliveries to Everglades National Park, and steps to restore the park’s natural hydrologic conditions. Correcting the hydrological and ecological effects of Tamiami Trail is a major component of that legislation.
Park and other conservation officials are encouraged that a contract has finally been awarded for some modifications to the Tamiami Trail. The upcoming project isn't the final answer, but it's an important step forward.
“The Department of the Interior, including the dedicated staff of Everglades National Park, and our partners have worked tirelessly for 20 years to restore more natural flow to the Park and to the greater Everglades,” said Tom Strickland, assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, who also serves as chair of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. “This is a great day for Everglades restoration and will be a strong foundation for future efforts to increase the natural water flow and return health to this incredible ecosystem.”
Dan Kimball, Superintendent of Everglades National Park, observed that, “Tamiami Trail currently acts as a dam that starves the Park of its lifeblood—water. The bridge and roadway modifications will not only supply much needed water to imperiled wildlife and vegetation in the Park, but they will also result in ecosystem restoration benefits to the greater Everglades.”
Construction on the new bridge is expected to begin in early November 2009 and continue until 2013. The project includes constructing the bridge and raising and reinforcing an additional 9.7 miles of Tamiami Trail to allow higher water levels in the adjacent L-29 Canal. Higher water levels in the canal will drive flows into the park when water is needed most.
“This is a momentous achievement for the Department of the Interior and all the agencies that have worked so long and hard to restore the Everglades,” said Col. Al Pantano, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District. “We are very proud to contribute to the Everglades restoration by serving as the managers of this construction project.”
The waters involved in this project have been muddied by controversy for years. Perhaps some of that water will actually begin flowing into the park again in the next few years.