Water district buying land for $618M Everglades restoration project in Collier
A state water agency is moving closer to completing an Everglades restoration project in Collier County that's expected to provide wildlife habitat and improve water quality and flows leading into the Ten Thousand Islands area.
The South Florida Water Management District is expected Thursday to approve $2.4 million for the acquisition of three parcels totaling about 91 acres in the Picayune Strand State Forest.
"This was an area that was originally designed by Gulf American (Land) Corporation that went belly-up," said governing board member Charlette Roman. "There were miles of canals, 270 miles of shell rock roads, and they were going to sell thousands of lots there before they went bankrupt."
The item is on the governing board's consent agenda and is not expected to be brought up at Thursday's monthly governing board meeting.
Gulf American Land Corp. developed Cape Coral and brought the swampland scam approach to selling real estate to this corner of Collier County.
The company marketed the development as the largest subdivision in the world.
The land was logged in the 1940s and 50s before being divided into parcels by Gulf American Land Corporation.
Few homes were built in Picayune as there were no utilities running to the homes, and many of the people who bought property only saw it during dry season from an airplane.
Much of the area floods during the summer, and by 1985 government agencies started a push to buy the lands and restore them.
Buying the land back took years as more than 17,000 people had bought properties there, and many of those owners lived outside of the United States and had purchased the lots for a vacation home.
Located about two miles east of Naples, Picayune Strand is about 73,000 acres in size and is bordered to the north by Interstate 75 and the south by U.S. 41.
The project will cost about $618 million and is expected to be completed in 2022.
The strand is home to Florida panthers, black bears, bobcats, bald eagles, Big Cypress fox squirrels and gopher tortoises.
It's also in the middle of several preserves: Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve Park, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Big Cypress National Preserve.
"We now have the Picayune Strand project filling in that area, so we're going to restore the sheet flow, restore the wetlands, and wildlife has come back," Roman said. "I saw birds there and an eagles nest. And as the sheet flow continues to be restored in the area, what you'll see is a water quality benefit for the coastal areas."
Researchers at the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve have tracked shark nursing in parts of the Ten Thousand Islands for more than a decade.
The research shows that mainly bull sharks are using the bay areas downstream of Picayune Strand because the water is so fresh.
Bull sharks are able to tolerate freshwater, but other species need brackish conditions in order to successfully reproduce.
Meredith Budd with the Florida Wildlife Federation said the overall project is crucial to water flows and quality in this part of Collier.
"This is a monumental project that will bring back thousands upon thousands of acres of wetlands and upland habitat, and that habitat is home to birds, woods storks, all the way to our iconic Florida panther," Budd said. "This is a very important piece of Everglades restoration, so I'm encouraged."
Connect with this reporter: @ChadGillisNP on Twitter.