Environment

County learns canal maintenance is costly, residents might have to pay upkeep

A backfilling project in a Key Largo canal, costing more than $1 million, was funded by Monroe County as one of five sites testing systems to improve canal water quality. County officials are considering how to provide maintenance funding.
A backfilling project in a Key Largo canal, costing more than $1 million, was funded by Monroe County as one of five sites testing systems to improve canal water quality. County officials are considering how to provide maintenance funding.

Once problem Florida Keys canals have been cleaned, they require ongoing care to keep from getting mucked up again.

"We truly want these canals to be successful so people can enjoy them," said Rhonda Haag, overseeing a $7 million pilot canal restoration project for Monroe County government.

"We don't want them to fill up with seaweed again," Haag said Monday. "Restoration isn't free, and neither is operation and maintenance."

On April 20, Monroe County commissioners approved a $100,000 contract to fund two years of maintenance for two Big Pine Key canals cleaned as part of the test program.

Weed gates designed to prevent seaweed from entering the canals and getting trapped require utility costs of air pumps along with routine maintenance.

"We need something in writing with the property owners that they're going to take over this expense" after the demonstration project ends, Commissioner George Neugent said.

Haag told commissioners that she is coming to believe that the county may need to establish some type of local special tax district for neighborhoods or subdivisions with canals that degrade nearshore water quality.

"We need to make sure completed [canal] projects remain restored and don't become infected with additional seaweed," Haag said.

"Once we make that investment, that's part of the deal," Neugent agreed. "People living on the canals have to take the responsibility."

Commissioners referred to "pushback" from some canalfront residents reluctant to financially commit to maintaining their canal system.

"For myself, I won't tolerate it," Neugent said. "Just move on to the next [canal] project."

"It can't be on a handshake, we've learned that," Commissioner David Rice said.

The canal demonstration project received $5 million from the county budget for five projects using different types of engineering and technology to remedy canal systems that were dredged too deeply to maintain a marine ecosystem or that accumulate seaweed that decays and damages water quality.

Results from the pilot programs could result in state or federal grants to clean other canals.

An additional $2 million was allocated for a project expected to remove muck and backfill a Key Largo canal. That project has not started.

Fixing all the Keys canals with poor quality could cost from $200 million to $700 million, commissioners were told last month.

Weed gates installed by community groups often are not effective in keeping seaweed out during windy Keys weather, Haag said.

Weed gates being installed by the county are "heavy-duty and manufactured for the specific canals," Haag said.

"It can be difficult for homeowners and property owners" to raise enough money to maintain operating systems, Haag said. "We need to have continuing discussions on setting a policy and see how well the systems are working," she said. 

In the 2016 session of the Florida Legislature, lawmakers amended a Florida Keys policy allowing water-quality money to be spent on things like canal restoration in addition to sewer and stormwater projects.

That funding largely would have to be allocated on a yearly basis.

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