Environmentalists, who bristled at a plan unveiled in March to build a levee on wetlands in a state-owned wildlife area, expressed cautious optimism on Friday when shown eight other construction plans — some that do not encroach on the wetlands at all.
“I like the fact there are other options,” said Drew Martin, the Everglades Chairman for the Sierra Club. Martin was among three dozen residents and officials who attended the 90-minute meeting. “It looked originally like you were going into the Corbett and that was the only alternative.”
In March engineers at the South Florida Water Management District proposed a plan to build a new levee inside the decrepit berm that separates the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area from The Acreage. Environmentalists warned that the plan would destroy 100 acres of pristine wetlands. However, eight more designs were presented at a public meeting at the South Florida Water Management District on Friday, some having far less or no additional impact on the wetlands.
Gov. Rick Scott tasked the district with designing and building a new levee after the berm that runs along a canal bordering The Acreage nearly breached after Tropical Storm Isaac dumped up to 20 inches of rain over three days last August. The berm was built with fill excavated when the canal was dug and was never meant to act as a dam against water from the Corbett wetlands.
To make sure money for the project would be included in the governor’s proposed budget, district engineers focused on one plan, which they unveiled in March. The governor responded by allocating $8 million for the project. Since then, they have studied alternatives, including lengthening the slope of canal banks, building a flood wall and constructing levees that do not intrude as far into the wetlands.
“We had to quickly show we could come up with a solution and so we proposed a conservative design,” said Jeff Kivett, the district’s Director of Operations, Engineering and Construction, about the first design proposed in March. “From there we always look at alternatives.”
None of the designs will impact the plans the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission uses to manage the Corbett, said John Mitnik, chief of the district’s engineering and construction bureau. Those plans include the minimum and maximum water depths allowed in the wetlands to protect wildlife. But for years officials at the Indian Trails Improvement District, which owns the existing berm, have feared that the high water levels preferred by the Corbett’s managers put too much pressure on the earthen berm. The new designs will give them greater flexibility in managing water levels, Kivett said.
Michael Anderson, an FWC wildlife biologist at the Corbett, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the additional design proposals. The commission will now assess each proposal’s impact on wildlife in the Corbett, he said. At the same time, district engineers will estimate the feasibility and costs of each design.
Initially, the governor proposed $8 million in his budget for shoring up the Corbett’s berm. While the House has supported the governor’s number, the Senate has proposed cutting that amount to $1 million. The final amount will be decided next week, when the current legislative session ends.
District governing board member James Moran said he was impressed with the plans but was not convinced the money would be forthcoming. “The whole thing is predicated on the legislature giving us $8 million,” Moran said.