Everglades National Park and Florida Bay

Black skimmers over Florida Bay. Photo by Jessica Hodder/Everglades Foundation

The Past

America’s space program was partially responsible for inflicting ecological damage to the southeastern Everglades and Florida Bay. Aerojet Corporation’s moon rocket engines were so large, they couldn’t be trucked to Cape Canaveral by highway. So in the 1960s, a 20-mile long canal was cut across southern Miami-Dade County–deep and wide enough (50 feet) so that barges could ferry the massive engines north.

Locally known as the “Aerojet canal,” and later expanded into the massive C-111 canal, the canal also served as a major flood control device. As a result of drier land, vegetable growing increased in the area. The jet engine maker is long gone, but the C-111 canal remains, diverting fresh water that once flowed west into the bay and shuttling it east into the Barnes Sound area of Florida Bay. “The canal is sucking what little fresh water there is in the southern Everglades right out,” says Dr. Tom Van Lent, senior scientist, Everglades Foundation.

The Present

The misdirected fresh water upsets the balanced salinity of Taylor Slough, devastating the delicate sea grass beds that are nurseries for young fish, shrimp and sponges and reducing the number of wading birds and other fish. The flood-control devices waste precious water needed to sustain the Everglades, pumping it rapidly away. The natural, slow, sheet flow of water through the Everglades to Florida Bay is upset. Scientists say that more than 75 percent of the water that once flowed through Taylor Slough to Florida Bay is now sent into the C-111. Without the slow flow of fresh water, the balance of salinity in the estuary makes a poor home for fish, crabs and wading birds. On the other hand, Barnes Sound, where the C-111 floodgates are open, is intermittently inundated with storm water.

The Project

The C-111 North Spreader Canal Project–long advocated by Foundation scientists–is designed to restore the natural flow of water to the southern Everglades and Florida Bay. “If you don’t fix the problems created by the C-111, you don’t fix Florida Bay. It’s that simple,” Dr. Van Lent says.

The first stage of the project is to build a series of retention ponds, totaling 600 acres, to hold storm water rather than allowing it to flow to the sound. Two new pumps will push the water west into the Taylor Slough. From there, the water will flow naturally into Everglades National Park and, eventually, Florida Bay. A seepage barrier will be constructed along the canal. Levels in the southernmost canals will be raised by barely an inch a year for several years so the impact can be examined.

Foundation scientists are involved in an array of projects related to the C-111 canal, Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, including developing plans for the second phase of the C-111 project. Using the results, Foundation scientists will propose specific projects to federal and state agencies for the next phase in restoring Florida Bay.

More data is being compiled to track phosphorus in the water and soil throughout the Everglades. Foundation scientists are also examining the stability of Everglades soil, comparing the effects of sea-level rise and its increased salinity with the effects of hurricane disturbances. The Foundation is also developing improved vegetation mapping techniques to compare present circumstances with those of the 1970s and 1980s, and to improve long-term vegetation monitoring. All these projects are being performed–many of them in conjunction with other scientific agencies–with a goal of restoring the remnants of the Everglades to past conditions.

“The biggest effort we are working on and the one with the highest profile is a synthesis of all the Everglades research,” says Dr. Stephen E. Davis III, wetland ecologist at the Foundation. The goal is to take the scientific results and make them understandable and useful to policymaking bodies that have the power to influence restoration funding.

The Future

The second stage of the project is to build a canal stretching east to meet with the north-south end of C-111. The new canal would allow gradual seepage of water into thousands of acres of wetlands, creating a more natural mix of fresh and salt water for Florida Bay. Eventually, more than 250,000 acres of wetlands and coastal habitat will be affected by the project.