CLEARWATER - Ditches, drains and canals have altered much of Florida's coastal landscape beyond recognition, but a new effort aims to reverse part of that trend in Feather Sound.
With help from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program wants to remove a concrete barrier, called a weir, that lies between a canal near the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport and the shallow waters of Old Tampa Bay. The barrier is several feet wide and spans the width of the canal's mouth - a little less than 200 feet. As part of the project, workers also would grade the sides of the canal and plant sea oats.
The $200,000 "reverse-engineering" project aims to ease pollution and encourage sea grass to flourish, along with the fish and birds the plant life supports. Organizers discussed the plan with residents at a Wednesday meeting.
"It's kind of analogous to removing dams in the Northeast and out West," said Ed Sherwood, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program project manager.
The canal, known officially as Channel 5, is nearly a mile long. It abruptly ends at the weir, which borders a dense mangrove forest and was built in the early-1970s to drain nearby wetlands for development. Once a creek that fed into a brackish tidal wetland, Channel 5 now consists of five razor-straight segments that line clusters of town homes on one side and the airport on the other. The waterway collects fertilizer runoff and other pollutants from homes, a golf course and nearby industrial operations. The runoff would normally flow slowly into the bay; but the barrier keeps most of that nutrient-dense water from spilling out, except in spurts, during heavy rainfall. Such events spell disaster for birds and fish because they push nutrients into the water that eventually kills the sea grass and creates a inhospitable environment for fish and other aquatic life.
The canal is in bad shape, locals said Wednesday.
"It's pretty bad," said 35-year Feather Sound resident Roz Hicks. "There are fish in there, but they're tilapia, which is an exotic species. They wouldn't be there if it weren't be such a mess."
The stark separation between freshwater and saltwater eliminates a brackish water region crucial for raising sport fish, such as snook, but is more habitable by nonnative species, such as tilapia.
"Along the shoreline, we've got all these different habitats. When we have decreased some of these, we've decreased the opportunity for wildlife," said Nancy Norton, who's heading the project for Swiftmud.
About 14 residents showed up Wednesday to find out about the project. Not all of them appeared entirely sold on the idea of removing the weir. Some raised concerns over potential flooding from storm surge.
People with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program have said they see no increased likelihood of flooding for the surrounding area.
"We've done some modeling that shows there would not be an issue in terms of flooding," Sherwood said. "There'd actually be improvements [to] the area in terms of floodwaters."
The surrounding area is known for severe flooding during thunderstorms.
Another possible downside is that mangroves may start growing inland, but the county can help them cull them if they become intrusive, Sherwood said.
Most residents at Wednesday's meeting seemed supportive of the plan.
"It looks like they've got it under control, and it looks like it's going to be a good thing," Hicks said. "If they open that weir up, it will let the water go back and forth and let it revert to the more natural thing."
Removing an artificial structure to restore a natural process is not common in Florida.
"This will probably be one of the first barrier removals in the Southeast, as far as I know," Sherwood said.
Ongoing efforts to restore the natural flow of water in the Florida Everglades aims to remove such barriers in South Florida, but that phase of the state and federally funded endeavor has yet to begin.
Pinellas County has set aside money to cover half of the project. State and federal dollars will pay for the rest.
County Commissioner John Morroni, who lives in Feather Sound, supports the project.
"We're looking at removing one of the barriers that's outlived its usefulness and, once removed, will increase the flow," he said. "In the long run, it's the better thing to do. Actually, we might be able to use it for kayaking and canoeing."