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In South Florida, where the Everglades meet the bays, environmental challenges abound. Sea level rise threatens homes and real estate. Invasive species imperil native plants and animals. Pesticides reduce the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, but at what cost? WLRN's award-winning environment reporting strives to capture the color and complexity of human interaction with one of the most biodiverse areas of the planet.

Not Just Any Pipe: Water Managers Speed Up Project To Help Florida Bay

What makes water managers celebrate?

New pipes, of course!

So South Florida Water Management District employees were stoked Monday when a flatbed truck with a massive aluminum pipe -- about 60 feet long and five feet in diameter -- finally arrived at a big district construction site southwest of Homestead. The pipe is one of three to be used in a project providing Florida Bay with more of the fresh water it desperately needs.

"We have been waiting for this for nine weeks," said Jorge Jaramillo, the district engineer who is  managing the project.

Credit Kate Stein / WLRN
Project manager Jorge Jaramillo said the pipe was manufactured in Florida and brought to the construction site southwest of Homestead by a Pinellas Park trucking company.

Multiple times a week, Jaramillo drives from the district's headquarters in West Palm Beach to the site, which is close to the Ernest Coe Visitors Center at Everglades National Park. The drive takes two-and-a-half hours each way, but Jaramillo says the work that's happening makes it all worth it.

"It's an expedited project," he said. "We wanted to do it as quickly as we could."

The reason for the urgency is the increasingly dire situation in Florida Bay. Since 2015, a lack of fresh water in the bay has catalyzed a die-off of more than 40,000 acres of seagrass that sustains animals from manatees to hogfish. It's also harmed the bay's commercial fishing industry and tourism. It's also harmed the bay's commercial fishing industry and tourism.

The pipes will connect one of the district's largest canals, C-111, with a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to convey water west into Everglades National Park and keep groundwater from seeping out. That should increase the flow of fresh water into Taylor Slough, a natural depression that conveys fresh water to Florida Bay.

Jaramillo said that to deliver more water to the bay as soon as possible, the district took on most of the project by itself.

"We did the design in-house, we did the procurement in-house and we basically purchased this equipment to do the installation," he said. "It’s really a good achievement for us to do something like this. Normally we hire a contractor."

Originally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was going to handle the pipe project. But water management district officials asked to take charge because they thought they could finish in "a few months rather than a couple of years," said spokesman Randy Smith. He said the Corps and the district have taken over each other's projects only about five or six times in the past decade.

"We can create a much faster benefit for Florida Bay by doing it this way," Smith said.

Jaramillo said the pipe project will be completed by June and that Florida Bay will see full benefits of increased water flow from that and other construction projects at the site by November.

Credit Kate Stein / WLRN
Multiple times a week, engineer Jorge Jaramillo drives two-and-a-half hours from water management district headquarters in West Palm Beach to the construction site southwest of Homestead, along the border of Everglades National Park. He's got a district pickup, but jokes that what he really needs is one of the district's three helicopters. Unfortunately for Jaramillo, the helicopters are usually reserved for water sampling and other research, says district spokesman Randy Smith.

The expected cost to the district is $175,000 to $200,000, and Smith said the Corps will pay the district back "somewhere down the road."

The pipe project is not part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), although the C-111 canal and other water management structures in the area are included in the multi-decade, $17 billion plan. Smith and Jaramillo said the district and the Corps collaborated on the pipe project primarily in response to water shortages in Taylor Slough and, consequently, Florida Bay.

But environmental scientists and the Everglades Foundation say water managers should also focus attention on the Shark River Slough, which discharges water in the direction of Cape Sable.

"It is important to recognize the value of any project that increases the flow of freshwater to Florida Bay," Everglades researchers Steve Davis, Joseph Boyer and James Fourqurean wrote in a blog post for the Everglades Foundation. "Taylor Slough inflows to Florida Bay are relatively small, yet direct... Shark River Slough is much larger."

The scientists say it's not clear how much fresh water Shark River Slough contributes to Florida Bay because it does not discharge into the bay directly.

But, "we know a significant connection exists, and given that the volume of freshwater flow in this massive slough will nearly double with Everglades restoration, its contribution will be even more important."

Credit Kate Stein / WLRN
A map at the Ernest Coe Visitors Center in Everglades National Park shows Taylor Slough and Shark River Slough. Shark River Slough is bigger, but Taylor Slough discharges fresh water directly into Florida Bay.

Smith said the district believes increasing water flow through Shark River Slough is "something that needs to be addressed and will be addressed."

But, he said, "Taylor Slough provides a little bit more of an easier shot of getting the water out into the bay."

This post has been updated with the correct value of projects in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. It is $17 billion.