Photo provided to Key West Citizen. A manatee swims in a debris-plagued canal in Big Pine Key recently. Residents are frustrated with the canal cleanup process, which is currently ‘in limbo,’ according to Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent.

By Timothy O’Hara

Staging for post-Hurricane Irma canal cleanup work began Wednesday and barges and crews could be working in the water as soon as Monday.

Monroe County, Marathon and Islamorada signed agreements with the state Department of Environmental Protection on Tuesday evening that has the state agency kicking in $10 million to help pay for the expensive and complicated cleanup of canals devastated by Hurricane Irma.

Per the agreement, the county will receive $6 million and Marathon and Islamorada will receive $2 million each.

DEP is funding the work that later will be reimbursed by the county and the cities. The local governments will then submit the invoices to Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursement.

DEP and county staff began negotiating terms of the agreement shortly after Hurricane Irma struck. Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, helped finalize the deal.

“We appreciate DEP’s effort to help Monroe County with the unprecedented marine debris cleanup of our canals and nearshore waters following Category 4 Hurricane Irma,” County Mayor David Rice said. “We are happy that this cleanup can begin soon.”

Sunken boats and cars line canal bottoms, while trees and other debris float at the top, impeding navigation in canals across the Florida Keys, with the worst in the Big Pine Key to Cudjoe Key area.

For the county, work will begin first in the Avenues section of Big Pine Key, said Rhonda Haag, who is overseeing the cleanup for Monroe County. The work will be based on preliminary surveys of the Keys conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The county plans to conduct additional sonar work as well, Haag said.

Haag expects the county’s $6 million share will cover about a third of the cost of the total to cleanup all of the impacted canals, she said.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is asking Congress for $5 million to help pay for canal cleanup costs in the Keys, she said. Also, the county plans to submit requests to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Service for funding to the help pay canal cleanup costs, Haag said.

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