By Natalie Strom
“We, in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we’re challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery – not of nature, but of ourselves.” – Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring”
Written in 1962, Carson’s words still ring true today. In an attempt to save the dying Everglades ecosystem, the state of Florida and the United States Army Corps of Engineers are working side by side on the beginning phases of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).
Signed by President Clinton in 2000, the 17-years-in-the-making, 4,000 page document could very well restore proper water flow to the southern portion of the Everglades.
Once reaching as far north as the Orlando area, the Everglades watershed was purposely drained by man-made dikes, ditches, levees and canals. In the name of progress, water was redirected to meet man’s needs, but in the process the land’s needs were lost, and over time, Mother Nature began to bend to the pressure of a mismanaged ecosystem. The result was seen in a tremendous decline in animal populations, increased invasive species, unnatural flooding and droughts in many parts of the state and overall poor water quality.
Conservationists and environmentalists such as Marjory Stoneman Douglas began calling out for a change in the 1930’s and 40’s; some even earlier than that. But it took quite some time for their cries to be heard. Projects such as the Kissimmee River Basin, and the one-mile stretch of US-41 which has been bridged for encouraged water flow into Florida Bay were only recently finished; both pre-CERP plans aimed to “get the water flow right.”
Thirteen years after CERP’s inception there are a number of projects also shooting for the same goal: getting the water right. That includes the Picayune Strand Restoration Project, located in Collier County, just south of I-75 and Golden Gate Estates.
“We call this the missing piece of the puzzle,” explains Janet Starnes, South Florida Water Management District’s (SFWMD) Principal Project Manager of the Everglades Policy and Coordination Division. To the Picayune’s northeast is the Florida Wildlife Panther Refuge; to the east, the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve and Big Cypress National Preserve; to the west lies Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve; and the south is home to Collier-Seminole State Park, the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Everglades National Park.
Originally, the Picayune was a wetland forest that flooded in the summer months, allowing fresh water to flow slowly southward, seeping into aquifers and draining into the ocean through bays and estuaries only after flowing through the River of Grass.
Like much of the Everglades, the Picayune was dramatically changed for development. Slated to become Southern Golden Gate Estates, the Rosen brothers of Gulf American Corporation bought up 85 square miles (55,000 square acres) of the Picayune in the 1960’s, dug four canals measuring 83 miles, built 227 miles of roadway and sold much of the lots before going belly up. With no infrastructure other than dirt roads, the development stopped dead in its tracks; but the four canals – the Prairie, Merritt, Faka Union and Miller – were still functioning, changing the natural flow of the water. Forty years later, the Army Corps and SWFMD are working to restore the Picayune and its watershed in hopes of regaining the original flow of water through the southwest Glades.
Property by property, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection bought back over 17,000 lots from the original buyers or their family members. Along with the Army Corps of Engineers, the state of Florida began the arduous task of reinventing Mother Nature’s “sheet flow,” or the slow seepage of water over the wetlands and out to the proper bays and estuaries.
When it’s finished it will be as close to natural as we can get it,” adds Starnes, noting that the changes to the Everglades over time along with modern development have made it impossible to revert back to a purely natural ecosystem. The man made attributes will hopefully rebalance the salinity in the estuaries of the Ten Thousand Islands and Rookery Bay. Thus, creating the perfect playground for juvenile fish, such as snook and snapper, to grow into maturity. Wading bird populations will rejoice and avid anglers will catch more than they can keep. That is, if all goes as planned.
“Right now (the water) just flows down a series of canals, the Miller, Faka Union and Merritt canals, and comes together at a single point discharge under US-41 and runs out into the Gulf or the Ten Thousand Islands,” explains Tommy Strowd, SWFMD Assistant Executive Director for Operations, Maintenance and Construction. “In addition to building pumps, we are filling in these canals and degrading the roadways so we can get as close as we can to the natural topography of the land. There are also a lot of natural waterways and small slews that were once there. So the intent is to reestablish those in the hopes that that will reestablish habitat that will be used for virtually every species native to this area.”
Hopes are also high that the “new” ecosystem will also help to fill the aquifers below. “Because we’re now holding the water back and it’s infiltrating into the ground water as well as flowing across the surface, we’re actually building what’s known as head pressure. The amount of water that’s in the ground will stay higher longer. So we’re actually having both a surface water influence as well as a groundwater influence, both of which are very positive to the ecosystem,” explains Starnes.
Restoring the Picayune also means restoring its wildlife. According to Starnes, who is onsite every day, there have been more and more sightings as the work moves forward: ducks, deer, swallow tail kites, bears and their cubs and even a mother panther and her two young ones. Starnes says the removal of non-native species like exotic grasses and brazilian pepper, along with the plugging of canals, has brought back some of the natural look of the land. Positive changes were seen almost immediately. “I’m a fourth generation Floridian. To see the Everglades being reverted back to what they should be, and to be able to be a part of that is really exciting,” adds Starnes.
In 2007, the Prairie Canal was the first to be plugged and have its roads removed. Natural flooding returned along with some of the natural wildlife and vegetation.
“In 2008, we plugged the (Merritt) canal and we’ve already seen great rebound of nature in that area,” states Jeff Kivett, SFWMD Division Director for Operations, Engineering and Construction. “The first pump station will be in operation in 2014, but there are two more pump stations to come online, so the final date of completion is 2018.”
“Virtually all the benefit that will be derived ecologically from this is going to be within the boundaries of Collier County,” explains Strowd. “Unlike other CERP projects, the money spent benefits the local communities and the ecological aspects benefit us locally as well. It may be a regional project, but it really has significant benefits for Collier County.”
Divided into three sections for the three pumps, canals are plugged and roads are removed as each section moves forward. If all deadlines are met, the 2018 finish date would make the Picayune Strand Restoration the first fully completed CERP project.
“We have different land usage north of I-75 than what we are proposing to do south of I-75,” explains Strowd. “In particular, Northern Golden Gate Estates which relies on (the Picayune) canals for flood protection. If we just filled in the canals in (the Picayune), you might have a restored ecosystem, but it would result in flooding to the north. What these pumps do is they make it possible for both of these distinct land usages to exist.”
Each pump will pull water from the canals leading into the Picayune from the north and then push it out over two retention areas filled with large pieces of limestone. The idea is to slow the rush of the water through the retention areas as well as onto the land. Areas directly south of the three pumps – each named after the old canals – will have portions of vegetation clear cut to again slow the water and bring about the sheet flow.
The first of the three pumps, the Merritt Pump Station, is in its final stage of construction. The Merritt Canal plugging should be finished in September and the operational and testing period should begin in October of this year. According to Starnes, there will be a test period of one year once the pump is up and running. The Army Corps of Engineers will oversee the pump until October of 2014 and will then hand it over to SFWMD. The same procedure will be followed for the two remaining pumps as they are completed.
The Faka Union Pump Station is the largest of the three and is currently under construction with a completion date of May 2014. The Miller Pump’s completion date is September of 2016. All three pumps are different sizes, but they all serve the same purpose: to create a “spreader basin” that slowly releases water from the north down through the River of Grass. Culverts have been placed under US-41 to move the water through different estuaries and bays throughout the Ten Thousand Islands as well as through the Rookery Bay region. Once the water is pumped through, it will be free to flow – never again to be pushed through a canal.
The Price Tag
“The way the Federal Government works in terms of building restoration projects is that they do not own and manage. They require what they call the ‘local sponsor’ to acquire all land needed for the project,” explains Starnes. “In this case, the state of Florida and the SFWMD are the local sponsors. The Corps of Engineers doesn’t acquire any land. However, the Department of the Interior, through a farm bill, provided funding to acquire a portion of the properties.”
The Army Corps of Engineers is also fully funding the building of the three pump stations as well as managing the building process. “It is their contract,” adds Starnes. “We are here because we jointly work together to make sure everything is constructed in the fashion that we want it so it achieves our goal. The current approved cost is just under $500 million.” The price could still fluctuate upwards depending on unforeseen costs.
In the simplest of terms, “the way it all breaks down is that the Corps pays 50 percent and the state of Florida pays 50 percent,” explains Starnes.
Considering the total estimated cost for CERP has ranged from $8 billion all the way up to $80 billion according to some analysts, a half billion price tag on a project that’s already showing signs of improvement gives cause for validity. “This is an ambitious and aggressive plan,” said former Vice President Al Gore regarding CERP and its 68 proposed projects. “But this much we know: The cost of inaction cannot be afforded.”
After all, as Marjory Stoneman Douglas once said, “There is only one Everglades.”
Learn more about the Picayune Restoration Project and the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan at www.evergladesplan.org.