County OKs $5 million for canals

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners has decided to front $5 million from its own coffers to begin what promises to be a lengthy and expensive process to restore residential canals.

And the hope is that the county will qualify for at least $30 million in oil spill money through the RESTORE Act to help pay for a large portion of the costs to complete the project.

Consultants for the county say that of the 500-plus residential canal systems in the Keys, at least 126 will need some form of restoration. And that doesn’t include some of the larger canal systems in the Key Largo area that were dredged so deeply they can’t flush and will cost several million each to restore the degraded water quality.

The consultants told commissioners last week that excluding the very deep canals, about $27 million might be the price tag for the project.

The reasons for the degraded water quality in Keys canals are many.

Most of the residential canals were dredged too deeply initially for the receiver waters, creating a flushing problem with regular tidal cycles. Over the years, leeching cesspits and septic systems from residential development have dumped things in the water that aren’t good for marine life. Storms have blown debris, both organic and inorganic, into the canals that was never removed and that debris has become silted over.

The first phase of the project, mapping the canal systems, is nearly complete. The second phase, which involves site visits to the canals and actually creating restoration recommendations, is slated to be finished by the end of September.

Beyond that, the county will have to find the money somewhere to pay for the project if the canals are to be returned to their pre-human-development conditions.

The mitigation strategies for that process include the installation of weed gates and aerators to keep out weed wrack and increase dissolved oxygen levels. Some of the longer canals may need to have pumps installed to push the water to the open bay. In some instances culverts will have to be installed to allow the canals to flush one another during tidal cycles.

And for many, backfilling will be the ultimate answer.

And each one of those strategies comes with a different price tag.

Although Commissioner Danny Kolhage said he had a hard time approving $5 million for an unknown return, or no return, he was told that only by putting up some money cold the county hope to win grants to help pay for the expensive projects.

“The things that live in the canals need water quality to remain viable,” said Gus Rios, local representative of the state Department of Environmental Protection. “We need this program to develop strategies to restore the water quality our environment needs.”

Rios said that although central wastewater will be a big step in restoring canal water quality, it won’t fix the problem.

“We have depth issues, configuration issues and other issues that must be addressed,” he said.

Thus far the studies have been paid for using state grant monies. Further money, however, might ride on how much the county is willing to commit to the pot from its own sources. Those sources would be property taxes or sales taxes.

“We’re going to be dealing with this issue sooner or later,” said Mayor George Neugent. “We need to deal with it when we have a chance to get outside money. We can’t separate canal restoration, wastewater and storm water from the water quality issue. They all play a part.”

Neugent said he believes that some property owners and homeowner associations will willingly chip in private money to aid in the effort as they did in Breezeswept Beach on Ramrod Key a few years back, voting to tax themselves for a culvert project to allow flushing of their primary canals.

Kolhage also questioned whether canal restoration is actually the responsibility of the county to undertake.

“We had no authority to permit development until 1969. A lot of these canals were in place before that,” said Kolhage.

County Attorney Bob Shillinger promised he would research the legal issues and come back with a report.

One of the sticking points of any eventual restoration program will be ongoing maintenance cost.

Property owners, either personally or through an association, will be asked to pick up the tab for ongoing maintenance and operation of such things as weed gates and aerators.

That may well not fly very far, said Commissioner Sylvia Murphy.

“I don’t find many people who agree with ad valorem taxes to restore canals or with sales taxes with other infrastructure needs. I don’t believe we’ll get the associations to agree to fund the operation and maintenance and we know that dry lot owners will fight extra taxes to restore canals for their water front neighbors,” said Murphy.

Commissioner Heather Carruthers agreed with the majority of the 3-2 vote to authorize the $5 million for the pilot projects that will give consultants the final pieces of data.

“If I buy a house, I’m responsible for the plumbing. Our residents now are enjoying the canals, and they will enjoy them when they’re cleaned up. From a global perspective, this is something that’s good for all of us,” she said.

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