Gov. Scott's waterflow bridge draws praise

6:13 AM, Aug 29, 2013   |    comments
Florida Gov. Rick Scott makes announcement about water woes in downtown Fort Myers.: Florida Gov. Rick Scott makes announcement about water woes in downtown Fort Myers. He announced funding for a new bridge along the tamiami trail that will allow water flow into the everglades. (Video by Andrew West/news-press.com)
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(News-Press.com) - Area water watchers praised Gov. Rick Scott's announcement Wednesday at Centennial Park that a 2.6-mile bridge will be built on Tamiami Trail to increase water flow to Everglades National Park and improve water quality in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.

But nobody suggested the bridge would cure the estuaries' problems.

The $180-million project will allow an annual average 215,000 acre feet of water to flow south from Lake Okeechobee rather than east and west down the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers - the state Department of Transportation and U.S. Department of Interior will split the cost of the project. Money would be spread over three years, keeping construction on pace to be completed by 2017.

"Anything that allows more water to flow south is a good thing for both estuaries," said James Evans, natural resources director for the city of Sanibel. "We're excited. This is a piece of the puzzle, but it's not the silver bullet."

The main issue is the aging Herbert Hoover Dike, which surrounds Lake Okeechobee.

If the lake's water levels rise above 15.5 feet, the dike could breach and flood surrounding communities and agricultural areas - since 2007, the Army Corps of Engineers has spent more than $300 million on projects to rehabilitate the dike.

When water levels approach 15.5 feet during rainy periods, the Corps of Engineers releases water down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie.

Excess fresh water and nutrients in the water can kill seagrass and cause algal blooms and fish kills.

Since the 1920s, Tamiami Trail has acted as a dam to water flowing south through the Everglades to Florida Bay.

The 2.6-mile bridge will let water flow more naturally to the south - a 1-mile bridge on Tamiami Trail was completed in March.

"This is the right thing for our families," Scott said. "It will get less water flowing down the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River. It is much better for our state."

Kurt Harclerode, operations manager for the Lee County Division of Natural Resources, said the bridge will help clean up the Caloosahatchee but agreed with Evans that it's not the silver bullet.

"It's going to take a lot of money to fix all of the problems," he said. "There are many pieces of the puzzle, and this is one of them."

Among the other pieces is the proposed C-43 Reservoir, which is designed to store 55 billion gallons of water just south of the Caloosahatchee in Hendry County. The $338 million project's implementation plan is finished and ready for congressional authorization and funding.

Former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah pointed out that the new bridge would accommodate 215,000 acre feet of water a year, but during the extremely wet year of 2005, 2.6 million acre feet flowed down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

"The bridge is a 10-percent solution," Judah said.

A key to helping water quality in the rivers, Judah said, is for the South Florida Water Management District to exercise an option to buy 153,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee from the U.S. Sugar Corporation for $1.1 billion.

"Then we'd have land to store, treat and convey water south to the Everglades," Judah said.

In addition to announcing the new bridge, Scott blamed the federal government for the problems in the two estuaries.

"They need to fix the dike," Scott said. "It's their job. It's their responsibility. It's the federal government's responsibility to fix that dike. If they'd fixed it in a timely manner, we wouldn't have all this water flowing down the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River and messing up our waterways."

President Barack Obama has proposed $30 million this year for the bridge. The budget allocation remains before Congress. The bridge could start to go up in late 2014 if design and building plans are completed early next year.

- The News-Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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