From An Expert: Pamela Sweeney On Miami’s Waterways

Mar 18, 2013

As part of The Canoe Project’s mission to shed some light on Miami’s forgotten waterways, I spoke to Pamela Sweeney, a bona fide expert on Miami’s canal system and the Biscayne Bay. Sweeney is the Manager of the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve.

Sweeney told me all about the cultural and natural histories of the Miami River, the Everglades, Biscayne Bay as well as how they are all connected– even today. Sweeney says, “Most of these canals are not man-made. These are natural tributaries and they have got a lot of natural and cultural history.” You can read our conversation below.

The Miami Circle Site and the Cultural History of Miami’s Waterways

“Depending on which canal– it varies– there is certainly a lot cultural history, in terms of Tequesta Indians having lived along the banks of these rivers. The historic Miami Circle Site is a testament to that and we have been able to maintain that.

It tells a story that is sort of incongruous with what you see when you are on the Miami River. It looks a lot different than it did in just the 1900s. A little over a century ago it looked entirely different. The Miami Circle sort of reminds us of that, but it is certainly difficult to visualize it.”

The Natural History of Miami’s Waterways

“The Miami River used to be entirely fresh and directly connected to the Everglades ecosystem. Of course, it still is, but in a much more changed way in terms of sea walls and being hydrologically connected in a way that really serves as flood protection for our area and not so much a natural system for the fresh water that is coming through the Everglades ecosystem.

In that, we are still connected to the Everglades ecosystem through these tributaries.”

The Miami River

“There used to be rapids on the Miami River–not a lot of people know that. Near the area where 27th Avenue is now, there used to be an area where if the Seminoles were coming to the Everglades and wanted to trade with people along the Miami River, they used to have to carry their handcrafted canoes over the rapids and make their way down the river down to where the Intercontinental Hotel is now. So, it has a lot of rich history.

The Miami River does still have the meandering character– it’s still there– in terms of the way it moves and how it is shaped, even though a lot of it, of course, is sea walls. It has been changed and there are water control structures on 27th Avenue now, but the delivery of water is what keeps Biscayne Bay alive.

Without the mixing of fresh water from the land side and ocean water from the east side, we wouldn’t have an estuary. An estuary is the mixing of fresh and salt water.

Even though these tributaries have changed, they still offer that fresh water contribution, giving Biscayne Bay the estuarine characteristic it has.”

Why are are the estuarine characteristics of Biscayne Bay important?

“The canals and these natural tributaries are connected to Biscayne Bay delivering this fresh water.

What we are trying to do with Everglades restoration is have the water delivered in a way that it’s not all coming out at one time. We are hoping to more evenly distribute water so it’s not just coming out of the canal all at one time. Essentially, we are trying to restore the way the water used to move, from the land to the bay.

Still, this fresh water at the northern part of the bay is how we get fresh water, so it’s important.

All of our natural tributaries here are critical habitats in the state protection plan, even though they look a lot different now. Considering what they used to look like, it’s no wonder why it was a haven for manatees. They had all the fresh water they needed. It was warm and shallow– and had all the vegetation they could eat.”

If you want to learn more about  the Biscayne Bay Preserves, you can go to Additional questions can be sent to or via phone at 305-795-3485. You can also see the bay’s new management plan here: