Miami Herald: Build the entire Everglades Skyway

Dec 4, 2009

The Miami Herald published this article on December 4, 2009

What happens at Rock Reef Pass, on the outskirts of Shark River Slough — the Everglades’ largest freshwater tributary — will determine if South Florida stays or goes. Shark River Slough has lost up to three feet of soil, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A single inch of Everglades soil (a mix of algae and decaying plant matter that took a century to form) now dries out in a couple years or burns within hours. Shark River Slough has lost more than half of its soil, according to the EPA, and some areas are less than two feet high. Simply put, the Everglades is sinking, and fast.

This process began more than 80 years ago, when Miami entrepreneur Frank Jaudon built the Tampa-to-Miami Tamiami Trail. His grand plan was to turn land south of the Trail into housing subdivisions, sugarcane fields and oil-well sites. With the Tamiami Trail acting as a dam, hundreds of thousands of acres of land south of the road began drying out and sinking.

A sinking Everglades would be bad enough, but when combined with a rising sea level, it spells disaster for wildlife and humans. As the rising saltwater enters the Everglades from Florida Bay, it also begins to spread into the Biscayne Aquifer, the rock formation that holds our drinking water. After rendering drinking wells useless, the saltwater eventually floods the Everglades and our neighborhoods.

Fortunately, there is a way out: the Everglades Skyway, long bridges elevating the vast majority of 11 miles over Shark River Slough. Government scientists have continually said the Skyway is the best alternative for full restoration. After years of wrangling and false starts, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers settled on a bridge one-tenth of the Skyway’s length. It is called Phase I. But Phase II needs to arrive quickly because sea-level rise is not waiting for us.

Miami-Dade’s Climate Change Advisory Task Force, headed by some of the best scientists in South Florida, predicts a three- to five-foot rise in sea level by 2100. The report says the saltwater from Florida Bay will head north overtopping the land and infiltrating our underground source of drinking water.

Today, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will cut the ribbon on construction of the Corps’ one-mile bridge. However, this bridge is not enough to save us. Our only hope is for more bridging. Fortunately, the National Park Service is now considering up to five miles more of bridging with a report to Congress expected early next year. The cost of building bridges has fallen by half in the past two years, and the stimulus act has injected billions of unspent dollars into the budget. With the appropriate funding, we could restore Everglades water flow, provide more than 6,000 new jobs and, with an elevated view of the Everglades, usher in an international tourism magnet within three years.

The time has come to build the Everglades Skyway. Restoring water flow across the vast majority of this 11-mile stretch of Tamiami Trail would keep the Everglades from sinking further and give us the fresh water to counter inevitable catastrophe.

JONATHAN ULLMAN, South Florida/Everglades senior field organizer, Sierra Club, Miami