Canal built for rockets stands in path of Everglades renewal

Of the many engineering atrocities inflicted on the Everglades, the C-111 ranks high on the list. The canal was cut across deep South Miami-Dade in the 1960s for the Aerojet Corp., which was then building moon rocket engines so big they had to be barged.

The rocket plant closed decades ago. The C-111, also known as the Aerojet canal, has remained, sucking water that once flowed into Florida Bay and piping it 20 miles the wrong way, east across U.S. 1 into Barnes Sound.

Now, after years of delay, the South Florida Water Management District is poised to begin healing the unnatural wound of the C-111 with $25 million in projects.

By the multibillion-dollar measuring stick of Everglades restoration, the construction work is simple and cheap. But the first step toward fixing the C-111 still faces myriad challenges, making it a microcosm of the broader effort to revive the River of Grass.

Farmers worry raising water in the Glades will flood fields. Environmentalists worry the marsh and bay won't get better if water isn't raised high enough. A commercial fish farm, as well as the nesting grounds of a tiny federally endangered bird, are in the way. The Army Corps of Engineers, federal partners in the restoration, is running years behind on legally required planning.

"And this is one of the easy ones," district Executive Director Carol Ann Wehle said.

Next month, the district's governing board will vote on three contracts for the first phase of the C-111 overhaul. They postponed the decision this month when a farmer challenged a key state permit.

The C-111 is so wide and deep that Everglades National Park hydrologists estimate it collects three-quarters of the water that once flowed south through Taylor Slough into Florida Bay. That leaves parts of the bay too salty and a poor environment for fish, crabs and wading birds. In turn, Barnes Sound, where the C-111 floodgates spill, has been periodically trashed with storm water.

Initial work calls for 590 acres of "cells," or retention ponds, to hold storm water in an area known as the Frog Pond, and two new pumping stations. Berms and plugs would be added in the C-111 and two connecting canals. Then, water levels in the southernmost canals will be slowly raised — one-tenth of a foot a year for five years — to assess the impacts.

The goal is to create what engineers call an hydrologic divide, or an underground wedge of water to blunt the canal's pull though the porous limestone aquifer.

"It's a good start," said Robert Johnson, director of science for Everglades National Park. "It's really just diverting water to keep more of it in the park. Eventually we're going to need a lot more coming from the north."


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