A wet summer apparently prompted Gov. Rick Scott to commit $90 million to send more fresh water to Florida Bay and the south Everglades by bridging more of the Tamiami Trail.
Scott has pledged $30 million annually for three years to share in the estimated $180 million cost of building 2.6 miles of new bridges along U.S. 41, better known as the Tamiami Trail. Scott spoke about the need last week while in Fort Myers.
South Florida environmental groups hailed the news that Florida would match proposed federal money to build more bridges, which would increase natural water flow into the Everglades and improve water quality in Florida Bay by removing the dam that's the road.
"Bridging the Tamiami Trail has been an Audubon priority for more than 20 years," Julie Hill-Gabriel, Audubon of Florida's director of Everglades policy, said. "It's all about recreating the natural north-to-south flow of fresh water into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay."
Sending more fresh water under U.S. 41 can reduce unnaturally high salinity levels in Florida Bay, a critical water resource for fish, birds and other wildlife. Seagrass die-offs and algae blooms have been traced to the manmade problems afflicting the bay.
Rainfall over South Florida this summer has been nearly 20 percent above the historical average. That raised the level of Lake Okeechobee to worrisome levels, forcing water-management agencies to pump lake water into canals that carry it to the Indian River estuary on the east coast and the Caloosahatchee River estuary on the west coast.
The sudden surge of fresh water laden with nutrients into both estuaries caused "really incredible damage to those local ecosystems," Hill-Gabriel said. "There are huge toxic algae blooms. In places, the water is not safe to touch, let alone swim in."
Appeals for relief reached the governor.
"This $90 million investment will be a huge step forward in our efforts to restore water quality throughout South Florida," Scott said in a statement. "Every drop of water that we can send south and keep out of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries is a win for Florida families."
Scott said the state's share of the bridge money would come out of the state Department of Transportation budget.
The Obama Administration included $30 million in its proposed budget for the first year of the Tamiami Trail project. Congress may consider the request when it returns from its summer break, but passage is far from certain.
The first bridge built to improve water flow under the Tamiami Trail, a one-mile span just west of Miami, opened in March after four years of construction.
"That was a critical first step, but it was only a first step," Hill-Gabriel said. "By itself, it won't do nearly enough to connect the flow to Florida Bay and the Everglades."
The proposed new bridges would be about five miles farther west, at the north end of the Shark River Slough.
"The east side [of U.S. 41] is where the road being there causes the most problems," Hill-Gabriel said. "The road doesn't let the water go where it's needed most."
More trail work
In an effort to move additional water south from the Everglades' Water Conservation Area 3, the South Florida Water Management District plans to use heavy equipment to excavate a flood control channel through the old Tamiami Trail.
The Water Management District says the work will allow water to flow freely into the L-29 Extension Canal and Everglades National Park. The project will work in conjunction with Tamiami Trail bridging projects that are also increasing water flows to the south.
The excavation is expected to start today.