With a 2024 target completion date, the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) are returning a 55,000-acre partiallybuilt giant subdivision back into wetland sloughs, Wood Stork, and Florida panther habitat, with tens of thousands of additional estuarine acres benefitting from restored sheetflow and salinity balance. This fall, the Corps awarded contracts to build the final large phase of the project — the Southwest Protection Feature — to protect private farms from flooding and move restored sheetflow under Tamiami Trail to Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Collier Seminole State Park, and the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
Completion of this phase will allow the plugging of the largest two six-foot deep canals — Miller and Faka-Union — and return sheetflow to the remaining two-thirds of the restoration project, currently waiting for natural flows to cover these dried wetlands.
However, there are some important issues yet to be addressed as this phase is constructed: avoiding harm from fertilizer-laden water draining off the farms and development into the estuaries downstream, and assuring restored sheetflows don’t get misdirected into uplands needed by imperiled Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and gopher tortoises. Florida panthers and other wildlife also need a crossing under Tamiami Trail to avoid harm to both motorists and large mammals.
Audubon and colleagues in allied conservation groups, with data from local and state agencies, have identified important strategies to fix degraded water quality. Results are still formative, as are efforts to convince the State to build the wildlife crossing, as both will require funding in a time that pandemic-impacted budgets pose challenges. Nutrients from farm fertilizers and sewage are universal ecological problems that plague waters worldwide.
The Corps has also been unclear on ways to protect uplands, but Audubon is working with partners to help avoid doing unnecessary harm while bringing to fruition such an immense restoration wonder.
Audubon celebrates this important step and is grateful to District Governing Board member Charlette Roman who worked hard to advance significant portions of restoration while awaiting the Protection Feature’s construction.
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