Gully Gee!

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers carved its vast canal system out of South Florida soil, the Corps wanted to drain water from the land and prevent further flooding. The plan worked -- too well. Realizing that the labyrinth of canals and levees has robbed needed water from both the natural ecosystem and urban settlement, they're giving it another try.

State water managers see the redesign as a chance to utterly transform existing urban canals, which are now little more than gullies full of polluted stormwater runoff in which you'd hesitate to put a boat, much less your body. "We have to rethink the design and functions of the flood-control canals. They are a missed opportunity," declares Allan Milledge, a member of the South Florida Water Management District's governing board. "They must come to be viewed as community assets. They must not continue to function as collectors for our waste."

To this end, the district this past May launched the South Dade Watershed Project, which presents a vision for a new South Dade organized around a revamped canal system. According to Daniel Williams, an architect and the principal investigator for the project, South Dade offered a virtually blank sheet on which to draw the idea: 80 percent of the land below SW 152nd Street is undeveloped. If the project's vision is properly integrated into future land-use planning in South Dade, he says, "we have a great chance at getting 80 percent of it correct."

At present about 200 miles of canal -- eight waterways in all -- slice through the southern end of the county in an area bounded by SW 152nd Street, SW 312th Street, the Everglades, and Biscayne Bay. They are simple box-cut canals, between twelve and sixteen feet deep and between forty and sixty feet wide, says project manager Thomas Singleton. "They're viewed by the community as drainage ditches," he says. But the Watershed Project proposes to turn those canals into sophisticated ecosystems that provide water collection, natural cleansing, distribution, and recycling, not to mention recreational and aesthetic benefits. This all-in-one package depends on an understanding of how the natural system functioned before humans showed up with their shovels.

Under the plan, engineers would widen existing canals and create adjoining marshland, parks, and new habitat for animals. The shape and size of the waterways would depend on the type of development planned for the area, as well as the ecosystem's needs. Certain types of vegetation and the topographical design itself would help to filter the amount of pollution and stormwater that drains into the watershed from the surrounding area. At the same time, the system would continue to provide flood protection.

Abundantly green and pastoral, the waterways would create recreation areas for boating, cycling, hiking, and -- yes -- swimming, say the planners. In addition, they would help to demarcate and unify communities. "As we go from Goulds to Princeton to Naranja Lakes to Homestead, there would be large open areas that would store and clean up the water for all uses," explains Williams, who also serves on the faculty at UM's Center for Urban and Community Design. "In doing that, we would give edges and identities to these communities and towns. These things will be beautiful!"

Along the coast, the planners seek to restore the "sheetflow" of fresh water through the coastal mangrove fringe. Where water currently shotguns out of canals into the ocean and bays, often with adverse effects on the estuaries, the project envisions a diffusion of fresh water along an archipelago of restored coastal wetlands. This method of water diffusion would more closely resemble the natural pattern of sheetflow.

While the theoretical basis of the project is bound to win a lot of support, the distance between vision and reality may be difficult to bridge. For one, the idea raises tough questions about land acquisition. "Isn't that the plan that assumes no one lives in South Dade?" asks one skeptical local government official familiar with the project. "Nobody can be against it, but how do you make the leap from that to flooding everybody's property?"

The Water Management District's Thomas Singleton argues that much of the land under consideration for the project -- between 5000 and 10,000 acres -- is already under public ownership. The rest, if necessary, could be acquired under various local, state, and federal land-acquisition programs, and through the Army Corps effort. In addition, he explains, the government can't just flood somebody off their land. (Singleton says the district has budgeted about $600,000 for the next three years to continue the project, but adds that it's premature to estimate the cost of acquiring land and applying the project's principles.)

Community involvement, Singleton notes, is an integral part of the project. "We're identifying opportunities for enhancing the canals to meet local needs," he asserts. "It's about becoming more responsible on a local scale." Residents, he adds, would come to understand the importance of the local waterways to their health and economic well-being.

The Watershed Project recently received a big boost when the Army Corps announced its plans to integrate the project's concepts into its regional planning process. Next month Williams and Singleton will present a final report to the district's governing board and will hold a public workshop on its concepts. By next year, the planners say, they hope to have two full-scale demonstration projects that would display the wisdom of their future vision, not just for South Dade but for the entire nation.


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