Canal study seeks clarity

By Steve Estes

Survey crews are currently making the rounds through residential canals in the Florida Keys, taking note of clarity, oxygen levels and generally, the poor condition of the majority of canals that flow in residential subdivisions here.

Monroe County has embarked on what most believe will be at least a $100 million project to improve water quality in local canals and the survey is the next step.

Once the survey is complete, county officials should have a good grasp on what might be needed in the coming years to improve water quality in residential canals.

The Board of County Commissioners recently set aside $5 million in future sales tax revenues to kick start the project, in hopes of getting another $30 million or so from BP oil spill settlement money if those funds appear.

With the survey results in hand, consultants will whittle the list to the worst 15 canals for water quality and the BOCC will select five for a pilot improvement project using the $5 million.

That amount of money may not go very far as consultants have already estimated that it could take more than $1 million to renovate some of the deep canals in the Key Largo area.

The primary issue with residential canals in the Keys is tidal flushing. Many of the canals were dredged for fill when the various subdivisions were platted and many of those were dredged many feet deeper than the receiver waters into which they flow.

That lack of flushing action leaves sediment and stagnant water at the bottom of the canals, increasing the algae growth and hindering the production of dissolved oxygen, the latter of which is needed to clear up putrid water.

Clearing the canal water quality may need several different strategies. In early reports, county officials were told that back filling to decrease canal depth would be one of the methods employed. It was also suggested that weed gates and aerators might aid in the renovation of the canals.

When the survey is complete, consultants will have mapped all 502 residential canals in the Keys, including those within incorporated municipal limits.

That, says County Administrator Roman Gastesi, will give the BOCC all the data it needs to embark on the renovation projects.

It will also give the municipalities the data needed to find out what needs to be done in their canal systems to turn the green water back toward blue.

But the money set aside by the BOCC to begin the canal restoration projects will not be spread around with the municipal governments.

Money from local sources, and potential BP money in the future will be set aside to restore canals in unincorporated Monroe County.

“The municipalities will have the data, but they have to find their own funding sources,” said Gastesi.

Consultants told the BOCC that more than 60 percent of the residential canals belong to the unincorporated areas, but not all of them will need expensive fixes for restoration.

And not all of the money may have to come from county coffers or outside governmental sources, says Mayor George Neugent.

He said he believes that once the county has the project underway, local property owners may well be willing to kick in their own dollars for canal restoration since the end result is cleaner near shore waters and probably property value increases.

He pointed to the Breezeswept Beach Estates culvert project from several years ago as an example where the local community voted to tax itself for canal restoration.

Under some of the restoration scenarios already aired, local residents would be expected to fork over some dollars on an ongoing basis.

If the county installs weed gates, it would be looking for homeowner groups to finance the maintenance of those weed gates into the future. If aerators are chosen as a restoration method, homeowners groups would be expected to split the costs of the electricity needed to power the aerators and cover maintenance costs in the future.

Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said she’s not sold on the idea of using county-wide tax dollars for renovations of residential canals, most of which are owned by the adjoining property owners, and who would benefit most from cleaner canals and the resultant increase in property values.

“I’m not sure I could ask a property owner on a dry lot to put out tax dollars to renovate someone else’s private canal,” she said.

But she said she’s willing to listen to proposals because the restoration needs to be done.

“I’m also not sure I could support the use of sales tax money for canal restoration,” she added.

Gastesi pointed out that this project is not designed to result in recommendations to open currently closed canals.

The US Army Corps of Engineers and and state and federal environmental protection agencies halted the dredging of canals for residential lot fill more than three decades ago after they discovered the canals had been dredged too deep for proper tidal flushing.

“We don’t expect opening plugged canals to be one of the recommendations,” said Gastesi.

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