MIAMI-DADE — Environmentalists are happy about the announcement of the long awaited removal of part of the Old Tamiami Trail near Everglades National Park.
The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) recently said the removal of 5.5 miles of Old Tamiami Trail roadbed, located in Miami-Dade County near the Miccosukee Reservation, would begin soon.
The project is expected to increase the natural flow of water and wetland acreage in the area.
Built about a century ago, the Old Tamiami Trail was considered a triumph of engineering at the time, however there wasn’t much consideration given to the potential hit the health of the Everglades would take from its construction.
Both the roadway and the Tamiami canal have acted as a dam which blocks water flow from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Bay.
As a result, the project – and others throughout central and South Florida – has caused water flow to the Everglades to diminish considerably over the years.
It has had a negative effect on the ecology of the region – including on some Seminole Reservations and on the Miccosukee Indian Reservation.
Since the 1990s, some canals have been filled and culverts constructed under roads and highways to help regulate water flow, but efforts have largely been fragmented.
‘As nature intended’
The SFWMD board approved a contract with Florida Power and Light Co. (FPL) to relocate power lines on the stretch of Old Tamiami Trail – clearing the way for its removal.
Reaction from a number of stakeholders in the state has been expectedly positive.
“Removing this stretch of road will allow the water to flow south as nature intended,” SFWMD board member Ron Bergeron said in a statement, also praising restoration efforts by the Gov. Ron DeSantis administration.
DeSantis’ office has identified at least two dozen Everglades restoration projects as a priority for SFWMD to tackle.
Following the announcement, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said his office would continue to work closely with the SFWMD to “expedite and advance Everglades restoration projects as quickly as possible.”
Celeste De Palma, director of Everglades policy for Audubon Florida said the project is a good start.
“Relocating power lines along Old Tamiami Trail is the first step to remove portions of the road and enhance the performance of the two new bridges along Tamiami,” she said.
A National Parks Conservation Association official echoed De Palma’s sentiments.
“Removing old Tamiami Trail will clear the way to flow water into Everglades National Park – water that is desperately needed to restore our national parks and connected ecosystems,” Cara Capp, who is the Everglades restoration program manager for the NPCA, said in a statement.
While clearing the way for water to flow south from Lake Okeechobee is the goal of environmentalists and others, some stressed the Herculean effort that remains for full Everglades restoration.
“This will help to restore a strip of marsh that was paved over nearly 100 years ago before it was known as Everglades National Park,” Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, said in a statement. “The ultimate Everglades restoration objective is to flow more water under the Tamiami Trail bridges further to the east. The Old Tamiami Trail is a relic of the past and removing it will allow natural habitat within this wetland of international importance to reestablish.”
Many environmental voices in Florida are Native ones. Betty Osceola, an environmental activist and member of the Miccosukee Tribe, lives and works near where the removal project will take place.
She is in support of SFWMD’s project, but thinks more needs to be done.
“It’s one portion of a barrier removed to get water flow, but you still have U.S. 41, she told The Seminole Tribune. “In the grand scheme of water flow, it’s not going to do much. It’s being given a lot of hoopla, but it’s a baby step.”
Osceola consults with the Miccosukee Tribe on environmental and cultural issues and she and her spouse also operate an airboat tour company on the Miccosukee Indian Reservation in the Everglades.
She is a member of the Panther Clan and has connections to the Seminole Tribe as her late mother, Mary Billie, was an enrolled member. Osceola has siblings who are Seminole as well.
She was recently featured in the TV documentary “The Swamp,” which analyzes the history of the Everglades, man’s attempt to tame it, and how that has shaped Florida.
Osceola said she hopes more Tribal members and others pay attention to where these types of projects are located and what different entities are proposing and doing across the state.
“People need to stay connected and keep tabs,” she said, mentioning the aquifer, storage and recovery (ASR) wells under construction near Lake Okeechobee now.
“People need to understand and ask questions,” Osceola said.
Osceola said the issue of nutrient pollutants flowing from the lake into Florida waterways – exacerbating red tide – is still one of the biggest environmental issues at play.
“You have to figure out how to remove the nutrients from the water and improve the regulations to reduce the impact,” she said. “I would want better regulation over all of the lands where agriculture is produced. When we are ignoring all these other problems, the removing of this little strip, what are we really accomplishing?”
Officials said the road removal would likely begin next spring and is expected to be completed by 2021.
The SFWMD recently released its 2020-2025 strategic plan for public review and comment. The plan is intended to serve as a blueprint for SFWMD and the public on water resource management priorities.
It can be reviewed at sfwmd.gov/2025.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is taking public comment on the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP) through the year.
The Corps is proposing several water storage ideas and two wetland restoration sites. Implementation is expected to better distribute water both entering Lake Okeechobee and being released from it, including near Glades County where the Brighton Reservation is located.
The document can be viewed at www.saj.usace.army.mil/lowrp/. Comments can be submitted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.