Canal Restoration

The desire to live in the Florida Keys, especially ON the water, increased throughout the decades as more people wanted their “little piece of paradise”. Particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, when property developers responded to the demand by dredging and filling land to create subdivisions and canals throughout Monroe County.

aerial-safety-harbor-canals_1987(2)(Photograph credit: Monroe County Public Library website) Aerial of Safety Harbor on Lower Matecumbe Key.
Photo taken by the Federal Government on October 7, 1987. From the Wright Langley Collection.

In all, over 170 miles of canals exist in the Florida Keys. Islamorada, Village of Islands is a municipality within Monroe County that comprises four islands: Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe, and Lower Matecumbe Key. Within Islamorada, there are 64 canals, totaling approximately 24 miles. This is longer than the total length of the four-island chain. As with most of the canal systems in Monroe County, the major problem is that their construction did not allow for any type of water circulation. When there is no flushing of the system, seaweed accumulates, sinks to the bottom, and decomposes. This process depletes oxygen from the water, killing sea life and causing a myriad of environmental issues.  


 Drift seaweed floating into an Islamorada oceanside canal on a southeast wind 


(Photographic credit: Rea Glass, 2014)

Impaired canal in Islamorada prior to restoration efforts showing accumulated seaweed that decomposes and depletes the oxygen from the water.    


(Photographic credit: Eddie Wightman)

The seaweed in the decomposition stage, fouling and depleting oxygen from the water 

In addition to poor water circulation, another huge issue was affecting our canals… sewage.  However, throughout the last two decades, achievements were made which included a transformation from septic tanks to a central sewer system and improved wastewater treatment.  As with other areas in the County, Islamorada has a ‘Stormwater Master Plan’ and has recently completed its ‘Wastewater Master Plan’. But even with human-sourced pollution under much-improved control, the canals were still not healthy. 

Many canals throughout Monroe County do not meet the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) minimum water quality criteria and pose as a potential source of nutrients and other contaminants to our nearshore waters. In September 2013, Monroe County completed a comprehensive Canal Management Master Plan (CMMP) which developed a prioritization for canal restoration and outlined feasible strategies to improve the water quality in the canals throughout the Florida Keys. 

Early in 2012, Islamorada began participating in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuaries Subcommittee on Canal Restoration, and shortly after, the Village Council approved moving forward with a series of canal restoration projects.  By 2017, Islamorada had completed and was monitoring two canal restoration projects and was nearing the completion of a third.  These consisted of an aeration system and weed barriers which utilized a curtain of air bubbles that blocks drift algae and other seaweed from entering canals. The projects were a success and homeowners were thrilled with the results. Watch our video to see the weed barrier in action mentioned below:


View the video of Islamorada's first canal restoration project completed in 2015: Improving our waterways.      

 Underwater photo of the air curtainUnderwater photo of the air curtain 

 Aerial view of the air curtain

Aerial view of the air curtain Aerial view of the air curtain blocking seaweed

Aerial view of an air curtain blocking seaweed 

Hurricane Irma’s passage across the Keys on September 10, 2017, brought winds and storm surges that did not spare Islamorada’s canal restoration projects.  The equipment operating all three projects was either destroyed or lost. By July of 2018 though, we had our original restoration project on Plantation Key up and running again and by April 2020 had reestablished the other two on Lower Matecumbe Key. Islamorada also partners with local homeowners associations to establish air curtains on privately maintained canals. 

Islamorada has also recently completed the construction of a new canal restoration project on Plantation Key which utilizes a gravity injection well that promotes circulation throughout the water column, providing life-giving oxygen. The implementation of this technology was the first of its kind for the canal restoration program. Islamorada is currently monitoring water quality conditions in this canal to assess the effectiveness of this restoration project and technology. 

In April 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis announced that the state Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) will launch a Canal Restoration Work Program (Work Program) for the Florida Keys that will set forth a definitive timeline for canal restoration with essential milestones for the completion of canal restoration projects. DEO’s goals and objectives for the Work Program are aligned with the core principles of Islamorada’s Canal Restoration Program. Due to the importance of improving water quality in the Florida Keys and the extent of the documented issues with poor water quality in Florida Keys residential canals, the Village and the DEO are willing partners in this Work Program. Islamorada has recently updated its canal restoration priority and ranking list which will guide restoration progress throughout the Work Program.

As initiatives under this new Work Program, Islamorada is in various phases of numerous restoration projects that include canal backfills, installation of culvert pipes, air curtains, and the feasibility of additional injection wells.

The results of Islamorada’s canal restoration program are being used to determine the effectiveness of restoration techniques, to further define restoration costs, and to aid in future grant applications for continued restoration. 

Islamorada has signed project agreements with two environmental and engineering firms, Resource Environmental Solutions LLC (RES), Inc. and WS Environment & Infrastructure, Inc. (WSP), to monitor the ecologic conditions of the canals to determine what changes are taking place before and after canal restoration.


Download Experimental canal restoration in the Florida Keys (PDF)