Corps submits Everglades replumbing plan to federal officials

Tuesday, February 4, 2003

By MICHAEL PELTIER, mpeltier1234@comcast.net

Plans for the replumbing of Southern Golden Gate Estates are in the hands of federal officials in Washington, D.C., the latest but certainly not the last step in a massive public works project to restore water flow to the Everglades.

Regional representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have revamped their plan to address the water-flow needs for Everglades restoration while protecting nearby landowners from flooding.

A U.S. Army Corps official in Jacksonville said he's hoping for a speedy response from his superiors in the nation's capital, which could result in a final draft being available for public comment by April 1.

"We hope we can get all their changes incorporated in a couple of weeks and then have it released to the public," said Carl Overstreet, Army Corps project manager for Southern Golden Gate Estates. "But we don't have a hard date for it."

Such a timetable would allow for public comment to be received and final modifications made in time for Congress to take up the issue this summer.

The latest plan would plug canals and tear out roads that were once part of a plan to drain thousands of acres in eastern Collier County to make way for the world's largest subdivision.

The new alternative would plug three of the four canals, leaving the Faka Union Canal open. The Miller and Merritt canals would be connected to the northern reaches of the Faka Union, south of Interstate 75. Water-flow control devices called weirs would be installed on the Faka Union Canal to control the release of water into the estuaries and instead let it flow over land as it once did.

Four canals run north-south through Southern Golden Gate Estates, converging near U.S. 41 East into the Faka Union Canal. The Faka Union dumps huge amounts of fresh water into sensitive estuaries in the Ten Thousand Islands.

A year ago, the Corps' plan was to plug the canals and use massive pumps to send water south from Southern Golden Gate Estates, a restoration effort that in 1986 became part of the official Everglades restoration goal.

The Corps floated the pumping plan a year ago, but project members were asked to take another look after neighboring property owners and scientists raised concerns over different portions of the proposal. There was concern that the plan would result in flooding in northern Golden Gate Estates, north of I-75.

Overstreet's group then came up with a pair of lower-tech options, but the team rejected those plans, saying the lower costs didn't provide the levels of restoration and flood protection necessary to carry out the project.

The group then came up with the alternative recently sent to Washington.

"It is an alternative that provides us with the most environmental restoration in that area without causing adverse effects in northern Golden Gate Estates," Overstreet said.

Janet Starnes, regional project manager who oversees Everglades restoration efforts for the South Florida Water Management District, hasn't yet seen a copy of the draft report but has been involved in its creation. Starnes said she's confident the project will be well-received.

"I'm not really anticipating (any major changes)," Starnes said.

Plans for the original pumping project totaled $60 million in construction costs. More recent estimates have the price tag at close to $100 million. Both estimates don't include land purchases. So far, the state has purchased nearly 52,000 of 55,000 acres in the region, about 90 percent of the planned purchases in Southern Golden Gate Estates.

"I don't have the cost figures, but I know it's more than it was when it was originally proposed," Starnes said. "I think that's in part due to the fact that we've done more modeling and work so we are more comfortable with the design."

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