By Kimberly Miller
Posted Jun 14, 2019 at 4:00 PM
A thirsty Everglades National Park will get more water with $100 million to elevate 6.5 miles of roadway and a Thursday approval by water managers to relocate power lines.
The two projects focus on the Tamiami Trail, a stretch of asphalt west of Miami that prevents water from flowing south along its natural path from Lake Okeechobee into the park and Florida Bay.
This month, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded Florida $60 million to raise a portion of the Tamiami Trail. That money adds to $40 million in state dollars already earmarked for the project.
On Thursday, South Florida Water Management District board members unanimously approved an additional piece of the plan. About $2.4 million will be spent to bury overhead power lines on a more than 5-mile stretch of a century-old portion of the trail that will eventually be removed.
“While it may just look like a contract to remove some power lines, I think we should all recognize just how important this is to the Everglades we are all fighting to save,” board member Ron Bergeron said. “This is a historic project.”
Elevating the 6.5 miles of Tamiami Trail will increase the amount of water flowing south by 28 percent. The project is scheduled to be finished in 2023.
The blockage created by the trail means too much water piles up north of the road in a conservation area where tree islands die from high water levels.
At the same time, Florida Bay suffers from a lack of freshwater that causes massive sea grass die-offs because of high salinity levels.
“Moving a much greater amount of water south — mimicking the natural water flow — is critically important for our environment, health, safety and economy,” said U.S. House Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, in a press release announcing the federal money for raising the road. “This project will see huge benefits to restore the Everglades and prevent harmful discharges.”
Allowing more water to go south should alleviate some of the need to send Lake Okeechobee water to the sea through the northern estuaries — a move that dilutes the brackish waterways and encourages blue-green algae blooms.
But sending water to Everglades National Park has been complicated by more than just the Tamiami Trail. The endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow has a nesting area south of the trail that prevents water from being released in that area during nesting season.
While there are four massive gates that would allow water to flow south, two are closed between Oct. 1 and July 15 so the birds can hatch their young in flood-vulnerable nests built just six inches above the ground.
With the $100 million road elevation, water will go where it is supposed to instead of on the sparrows.
“It’s important we get back to the natural flow,” Bergeron said.