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River of Grass flows again into Everglades National Park

A backhoe breaks through the roadbed of the old Tamiami Trail, which blocked the flow of the famed River of Grass for 85 years.
Published May 16, 2013

Eighty-five years ago, work crews built a dam across the Everglades and called it the Tamiami Trail. The two-lane highway, completed in 1928, blocked most of the flow of the River of Grass just as it began trickling into what would become Everglades National Park.

On Wednesday, the dam broke.

About 10 a.m., a worker driving a backhoe cracked apart the old roadbed, letting the shallow water flow into the park the way it did eight decades before.

"It's an important milestone in Everglades restoration," said Mary Plumb, a spokeswoman for the park.

But federal officials acknowledge that it's not enough.

For centuries the River of Grass flowed smoothly southward from Lake Okeechobee, sweeping across a 70-mile wide swath of saw grass marsh down toward Florida Bay.

Then, in the 1920s, work crews showed up with a dredge that scooped muck from the marsh and piled it up to become a roadbed. The ditch that resulted became a roadside canal to aid in keeping the highway dry.

Although state road crews eventually added 19 culverts under the Tamiami Trail, the flow through them could not match the original flow, park officials said. Before the road, the peak flow was 4,000 cubic feet of water per second meandering across a 10-mile wide stretch. The culverts allowed less than half that much, and it zoomed through them as if being sprayed out of a garden hose.

The loss of so much fresh water flow has wreaked havoc on the Everglades. Plants that depended on that steady fresh water flow died, and saltwater crept farther and farther north. Meanwhile, the population of wading birds decreased between 70 and 90 percent.

The solution: Raise the highway so the water could flow again. But raising a single mile of the 275-mile highway took 24 years, thanks to bureaucratic and congressional delays, and ultimately cost $95 million. That bridge opened in April.

Environmental groups lobbied for 11 miles of the highway to be turned into a bridge over the marsh, but federal officials said that was too extravagant. Instead, two years ago the Interior Department, which oversees national parks, unveiled plans for raising another 5.5 miles.

The plan called for using four different bridges, ranging in length from a third of a mile to 2.6 miles, to be built over four years at an estimated cost of $324 million to $350 million.

The White House has put $130 million into its proposed budget for 2013-2014 to get started on raising the longest segment, the 2.6-mile one. The Everglades Foundation and other environmental groups are hopeful that some of the fines from BP's 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill could be applied to the project, said foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg.

"The park needs this water," Eikenberg said.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

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