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BlogHow a giant chainsaw will help save America’s Everglades

March 31, 2022
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It looks like an attraction you might see on a billboard driving the interstate in west Texas: “Tour the world’s largest chainsaw!” Take a left three miles after the world’s biggest ball of yarn, and there it would be, a construction rig of colossal proportions.

But that’s not where you’ll find it today. Instead, this massive chainsaw is on site just west of Miami, slicing dirt to give Florida’s water managers greater flexibility in moving critical fresh water south along the Everglades’ historic flow.

Technically a trencher, this behemoth with a sixty-foot blade is literally digging south Florida out of water struggle and driving Everglades restoration further along the Send-it-South highway.

Why they’re breaking out the big guns

For decades, the Everglades has been deprived of the fresh water that it desperately needs—the water it once received naturally. Prior to man’s manipulation of the Everglades system 100 years ago, Lake Okeechobee’s southern banks would overflow from wet-season rainfall, meandering south throughout the dry season and hydrating the massive expanse of wetlands.

This sheet flow of water, coined the “River of Grass,” would culminate in Florida Bay, where the swamp’s sweet water met the gulf’s salt and balanced one of the most biologically rich estuaries on the planet.

Unfortunately, more than a century ago, in order to settle the land south of Lake Okeechobee, that historic flow of fresh water was cut off. Now, only about one-third the amount of water that once flowed south from the lake makes its way through the Everglades and into Florida Bay.

Instead, it’s often discharged to the east and west coasts in harmful amounts through manmade connections, wreaking havoc on the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee River estuaries.

photo by Jason Stemple

With the limited fresh water moving south, our national treasure, The Everglades, is at risk of total destruction and permanent alteration. Salinity imbalances created in Florida Bay have led to 40,000-acre seagrass die-off events. Wetland areas have dried out and led to peat moss fires, releasing major amounts of stored carbon. The fate of the Everglades is truly at a precipice.

So, what’s the answer? Restore the flow, re-establish the “River of Grass,” or at least create a system that mimics it as closely as possible. That’s where the trencher comes to lend a hand, or bend a blade, if you will.

photo by Jason Stemple
A restored Everglades is the goal

Everglades restoration and the idea of sending more water south is nothing new. In fact, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) has been approved since 2000, but until recent years, progress has been slow.

Made up of 68 projects, the endeavor is no small undertaking. Quite the opposite actually—CERP is the largest ecosystem restoration project in the world. It’s an engineering marvel to say the least, one that requires things like a 60-foot chainsaw.

But it’s not just an exercise in metal and might. Restoration has also proved to be an ongoing operational challenge for water managers. Move water from Point A to Point Z through manmade structures while factoring in the implications for Points B through Y along the way.

It’s something that Mother Nature had no trouble with 100 years ago, but it’s made more complicated with today’s population and structure. Sometimes those complications stem from operational procedurewho gets the water and when?—and sometimes they’re the result of a lack of infrastructure—canals, pumps, water storage areas, etc.

photo by Jason Stemple
Removing a roadblock to sending more water south

This trencher is working on creating critical new infrastructure to answer a problem that has often restricted water from flowing south: flooding in the Las Palmas community. Las Palmas, known ubiquitously as the 8.5 Square Mile, is a small development just west of Miami and just inside the levee that borders Everglades National Park.

Historically, flooding concerns for Las Palmas has at times prevented water from being released into Shark River and Taylor Sloughs—the networks of wetlands that connect the northern and southern Everglades.

Thankfully, this trencher is fast at work digging a track two feet wide and 63 feet deep along the western perimeter of the 8.5 Square Mile area. That track will then be filled with concrete, creating a two-mile seepage wall that will mitigate flooding and facilitate increased flows south.

In conjunction with other recent infrastructure upgrades in the central Everglades, this project will not only allow more water to move south, but it will also alleviate unnatural flooding in the water conservation areas (WCAs) north of the US-41 highway. US-41, or Tamiami Trail, cuts through the central Everglades running east to west, creating a barrier for water traveling north to south and presenting a predicament for water managers.

photo by Jason Stemple

Upgraded bridges along Tamiami Trail afford more capacity to send water south

However, in recent years, major improvements under the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP—a subset of CERP) have created the infrastructure necessary to bypass the road. Things like the removal of the Old Tamiami Trail roadbed, installation of four new bridges, and the placement of a series of pump stations have provided the framework to move the water from the WCAs north of the road to the sloughs south of the road.

Unfortunately, concerns for flooding in the 8.5 Square Mile area have sometimes prevented that framework from actual implementation. Instead, during some high-water times, that water is held north of the Tamiami Trail and ponding in the WCAs occurs, creating a hazardous environment for the wildlife in those zones, particularly the mammals.

This seepage wall will relieve those issues. It will allow managers to truly take advantage of the improved infrastructure. It will help send more water south, keep the water where it’s needed within Everglades National Park, and safeguard the surrounding communities.

Media 1-87C2A463-79BB-421C-8FB8-B0AEFBD74FD5
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The path is clear—next step, more storage

This improvement is one of the last remaining pathway barriers to sending more water south, and it emphasizes the need for greater water storage capacity through projects like the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir. The EAA Reservoir is a massive, deep-water storage reservoir under construction south of the lake that is designed to store, clean, and initiate conveyance of water south from the lake. With this seepage wall complete, the route for water will be significantly less obstructed, offering greater opportunity to fully utilize other critical system components like the EAA Reservoir.

The South Florida Water Management District broke ground on the project back in August 2021, and it is expected to be completed this summer. Once it’s completed, we’ll be one step closer to a restored Everglades system.

It looks like an attraction you might see on a billboard driving the interstate in west Texas: “Tour the world’s largest chainsaw!” Take a left three miles after the world’s biggest ball of yarn, and there it would be, a construction rig of colossal proportions.

But that’s not where you’ll find it today. Instead, this massive chainsaw is on site just west of Miami, slicing dirt to give Florida’s water managers greater flexibility in moving critical fresh water south along the Everglades’ historic flow.

Technically a trencher, this behemoth with a sixty-foot blade is literally digging south Florida out of water struggle and driving Everglades restoration further along the Send-it-South highway.

Why they’re breaking out the big guns

For decades, the Everglades has been deprived of the fresh water that it desperately needs—the water it once received naturally. Prior to man’s manipulation of the Everglades system 100 years ago, Lake Okeechobee’s southern banks would overflow from wet-season rainfall, meandering south throughout the dry season and hydrating the massive expanse of wetlands.

This sheet flow of water, coined the “River of Grass,” would culminate in Florida Bay, where the swamp’s sweet water met the gulf’s salt and balanced one of the most biologically rich estuaries on the planet.

Unfortunately, more than a century ago, in order to settle the land south of Lake Okeechobee, that historic flow of fresh water was cut off. Now, only about one-third the amount of water that once flowed south from the lake makes its way through the Everglades and into Florida Bay.

Instead, it’s often discharged to the east and west coasts in harmful amounts through manmade connections, wreaking havoc on the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee River estuaries.

photo by Jason Stemple

With the limited fresh water moving south, our national treasure, The Everglades, is at risk of total destruction and permanent alteration. Salinity imbalances created in Florida Bay have led to 40,000-acre seagrass die-off events. Wetland areas have dried out and led to peat moss fires, releasing major amounts of stored carbon. The fate of the Everglades is truly at a precipice.

So, what’s the answer? Restore the flow, re-establish the “River of Grass,” or at least create a system that mimics it as closely as possible. That’s where the trencher comes to lend a hand, or bend a blade, if you will.

photo by Jason Stemple
A restored Everglades is the goal

Everglades restoration and the idea of sending more water south is nothing new. In fact, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) has been approved since 2000, but until recent years, progress has been slow.

Made up of 68 projects, the endeavor is no small undertaking. Quite the opposite actually—CERP is the largest ecosystem restoration project in the world. It’s an engineering marvel to say the least, one that requires things like a 60-foot chainsaw.

But it’s not just an exercise in metal and might. Restoration has also proved to be an ongoing operational challenge for water managers. Move water from Point A to Point Z through manmade structures while factoring in the implications for Points B through Y along the way.

It’s something that Mother Nature had no trouble with 100 years ago, but it’s made more complicated with today’s population and structure. Sometimes those complications stem from operational procedurewho gets the water and when?—and sometimes they’re the result of a lack of infrastructure—canals, pumps, water storage areas, etc.

photo by Jason Stemple
Removing a roadblock to sending more water south

This trencher is working on creating critical new infrastructure to answer a problem that has often restricted water from flowing south: flooding in the Las Palmas community. Las Palmas, known ubiquitously as the 8.5 Square Mile, is a small development just west of Miami and just inside the levee that borders Everglades National Park.

Historically, flooding concerns for Las Palmas has at times prevented water from being released into Shark River and Taylor Sloughs—the networks of wetlands that connect the northern and southern Everglades.

Thankfully, this trencher is fast at work digging a track two feet wide and 63 feet deep along the western perimeter of the 8.5 Square Mile area. That track will then be filled with concrete, creating a two-mile seepage wall that will mitigate flooding and facilitate increased flows south.

In conjunction with other recent infrastructure upgrades in the central Everglades, this project will not only allow more water to move south, but it will also alleviate unnatural flooding in the water conservation areas (WCAs) north of the US-41 highway. US-41, or Tamiami Trail, cuts through the central Everglades running east to west, creating a barrier for water traveling north to south and presenting a predicament for water managers.

photo by Jason Stemple

Upgraded bridges along Tamiami Trail afford more capacity to send water south

However, in recent years, major improvements under the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP—a subset of CERP) have created the infrastructure necessary to bypass the road. Things like the removal of the Old Tamiami Trail roadbed, installation of four new bridges, and the placement of a series of pump stations have provided the framework to move the water from the WCAs north of the road to the sloughs south of the road.

Unfortunately, concerns for flooding in the 8.5 Square Mile area have sometimes prevented that framework from actual implementation. Instead, during some high-water times, that water is held north of the Tamiami Trail and ponding in the WCAs occurs, creating a hazardous environment for the wildlife in those zones, particularly the mammals.

This seepage wall will relieve those issues. It will allow managers to truly take advantage of the improved infrastructure. It will help send more water south, keep the water where it’s needed within Everglades National Park, and safeguard the surrounding communities.

Media 1-87C2A463-79BB-421C-8FB8-B0AEFBD74FD5
Media 1-9DD87352-DF3D-4AEE-8429-C65D6399770F
Media 1-4D8B5DFC-714F-4D09-A722-49AAD6443CB0
The path is clear—next step, more storage

This improvement is one of the last remaining pathway barriers to sending more water south, and it emphasizes the need for greater water storage capacity through projects like the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir. The EAA Reservoir is a massive, deep-water storage reservoir under construction south of the lake that is designed to store, clean, and initiate conveyance of water south from the lake. With this seepage wall complete, the route for water will be significantly less obstructed, offering greater opportunity to fully utilize other critical system components like the EAA Reservoir.

The South Florida Water Management District broke ground on the project back in August 2021, and it is expected to be completed this summer. Once it’s completed, we’ll be one step closer to a restored Everglades system.