Tampa's flood control canal gets 50-year checkup

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The canal that protects Tampa and Temple Terrace from river flooding is getting a 50-year check-up.

The Tampa Bypass Canal took 20 years and hundreds of millions of dollars to build.

The Army Corps of Engineers began the project in the 1960s and finished it in the 1980s. So far, the canal and its flood control structures have prevented major flooding along the Hillsborough River that was seen in decades past.

Destructive floods after Hurricane Donna in 1960 sparked the project that was championed by the late Congressman Sam Gibbons and others.

"It's a 50-year-old fortress," said Mike Barlett, of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, now in charge of the canal. 

Barlett says even during Hurricane Irma last year, the canal was carrying less than half its capacity.

"It was designed to handle a hundred-year storm event, plus 25 percent and we have come nowhere near getting to the capacity of this system," said Jerry Mallam, of the water management district.

He calls the bypass canal "amazing" and believes it's in good shape even after a half-century of operation.

To be sure, he says independent engineers have inspected the canal and its flood control structures and the district expects their report soon.

"There are not many places in Florida where you can shut down a river and divert the river around cities," said Mallams.

He believes, over the years, the canal has prevented flood damage that would have cost millions of dollars, and perhaps even saved lives.