2121 52nd Ave SE, Naples, FL
COLLIER COUNTY — The irony of Everglades restoration is that its architects say human intervention is necessary to reverse the damage humans did in the first place.
In Southwest Florida, the next step of that endeavor begins today as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District break ground on a massive $79 million pump station in the Picayune Strand that will redirect water flow to help recreate lost wetlands in rural Collier County.
Col. Al Pantano, the corps district commander overseeing the project, admits there’s irony in creating “a concrete monstrosity” in the middle of the wilderness to “let Mother Nature” take effect.
“You’ll never restore Florida to the way it was,” he said. “We have to work around it.”
Restoration is underway in the Picayune Strand, a stretch of 55,000 acres between Alligator Alley and U.S. 41 East, to reverse the effects of construction of a subdivision that began decades ago but was abandoned before the project was finished.
The canals and roads built in the area have been blamed for disrupting natural water flow and drying up wetlands.
That led to the loss of habitat for species like the endangered Florida panther and the introduction of invasive plants, Pantano said. He said restoration has been underway since 2006 to flatten old roadways and plug the canals to allow for a “sheet flow” water effect.
The Faka Union Canal pump station will be the second and largest of three stations planned for Picayune Strand restoration work. When finished, the station will intercept fresh water heading south from canals in Golden Gate Estates and redistribute the water at a rate of 2,630 cubic feet of water per second.
Mike Duever, an ecologist with the South Florida Water Management District, said the restoration of the Picayune Strand will not only create more hospitable habitat for native species, it will also reduce wildfire hazard and improve water supply in Collier County.
In 2009, the corps set aside $53 million for the contractor Harry Pepper and Associates to build the first pump on the Merritt Canal. That work is underway.
The same contractor was awarded the Faka Union project with federal funds. Money for the third and final pump for the Picayune Strand restoration has not been awarded.
Even in a budget-cutting environment, the corps deputy district engineer for Everglades restoration, Stu Appelbaum, said he’s not concerned the project won’t get finished.
“It wouldn’t make sense to stop halfway,” Appelbaum said.
Duever said he’s not worried either. The 69-year old said he’s been working toward Everglades restoration for more than 30 years. Political will toward the project has seen its ups and downs, he said.
However, he said, people like him are committed to working until its completed.
“It won’t stop because people like me won’t quit,” he said.