FLORIDA CITY, Fla. (AP) - Environmental advocates say a major Everglades restoration project is exceeding expectations after its first year of operations.
The so-called C-111 Spreader Canal opened in January 2013. It was designed to plug an existing canal and keep millions gallons of water from seeping out of Everglades National Park.
Audubon Florida officials say the project has redirected water into a slough that leads through the park into Florida Bay, helping to rehydrate wetlands that have lost too much water to a flood control system and other development in Miami-Dade County.
"The C-111 project appears to be performing beyond even the best expectations at this point. The health and quality of habitat is improving - habitat that wading birds like roseate spoonbills, game fish, and crocodiles depend on. These encouraging changes will continue to have a positive impact on the Everglades ecosystem," said Jerry Lorenz, the group's state director of research.
Salinity levels also are dropping in Florida Bay and as a result, underwater plant communities are thriving, officials said. Fish that breed in underwater vegetation are a primary food source for wading birds such as the roseate spoonbill.
The long-awaited project is one of dozens that aim to restore the natural flow of freshwater through the Everglades into the ailing Florida Bay. High salinity levels in the bay threaten South Florida's fishing industry and experts have been concerned about a complete ecosystem collapse in the shallow waters.
The project falls under the multibillion-dollar Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which was approved by Congress in 2000. Little progress has been made, however, because projects have been routinely delayed by funding shortfalls, political infighting and legal challenges.
Florida's wetlands have been damaged for decades by farming, development, pollution and urban runoff. Dikes, dams and canals have effectively drained much of the swamp, and correcting the water flow is seen as the key to Everglades' survival.
This week, the South Florida Water Management District, which leads Everglades restoration efforts for the state, broke ground on a water quality project to clean water flowing into the Everglades. Audubon Florida's Executive Director Eric Draper called it a "good example of the type of water cleansing project needed to protect our beautiful River of Grass."
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