Massive Everglades restoration project in Picayune Strand more than two thirds complete

The first project in a larger plan to restore part of the Everglades is in its final stages.

Federal and state agencies have been working in the Picayune Strand State Forest since 2007 to restore sheet flow to waters that have been tied up in four canals since the 1960s. Sheet flow is the broad, slow-moving way water spreads across the Everglades.

What started off as a failed housing scheme called South Golden Gate Estates — wherein developers sold flooded plots sight unseen in the 1950s  — became an effort to restore drained wetlands and bring back wading birds, cypress domes and a diverse community of native plants and animals to 55,000 acres in southern Collier County.

Ibis take flight in the Picayune Strand recently. Picayune Strand is undergoing a massive restoration effort and is 70 percent done.

“Restoration is a touchy thing,” said Brad Cornell of Audubon Florida. “You’ve got to really be cognizant of all these factors: Ecology, hydrology and species. It’s not impossible and that’s the goal.”

The Picayune Strand restoration project is part of the large and ambitious Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (CERP). Aimed to restore the Everglades back into the “river of grass,” Congress authorized CERP in 2000, and the Picayune restoration project was added to the program in 2004. The partners behind the massive effort are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District.

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The project includes removing roads and logging trams, plugging canals and operating three pump stations — all designed to restore water flows close to what they were before development.

A white-tailed deer looks out from tall grasses in the Picayune Strand recently. The strand is undergoing a massive restoration effort that will make it into a wetland. The project is 70 percent completed and expected to be finished by 2024. The area where the deer is standing used to be a street in the former development.

The Picayune restoration project is nearly 70% complete and will be the first to finish under CERP, said Stephen Baisden, the Corps’ project manager.

While taking the water out of canals and creating a more natural sheet flow is the goal, native plant and animal life will benefit from the project.

The restored sheet flow will provide Picayune with a short period of higher waters, which is great for wading birds like roseate spoonbills and wood storks that use that habitat for short periods.

“Wood storks are not a species doing well in the Everglades system, so if we can provide habitat that meets their needs, that would be fantastic,” said Shawn Clem, research director at the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

Clem’s background is in aquatic communities, and her greatest expertise is in the biological relationships between fish and birds. Bringing back the natural sheet flow will allow a greater diversity of fish to inhabit Picayune, she said. More fish in the slow-moving sheet flow will allow more wading birds to return to the ecosystem.

“That fish population feeds wading birds through the nesting season,” she said. “That then benefits wading bird restoration on a population level. In theory that’s how it should all work.”

Turkey strut through the Picayune Strand recently. The strand is undergoing a massive restoration effort and is 70 percent done.

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Southwest Florida is quickly losing wading bird habitat due to development, and as restoration in Picayune progresses, an influx of wading birds is a good indicator the project is working.

The same wetlands that provide sustenance and shelter for native birds and fish provide habitat for plants and trees native to the south Florida ecosystem.

Mike Duever has worked on the Picayune restoration project as an ecologist for 14 years with the district. He calls the state forest the little briar patch in his backyard.

“The simple way to put it is that I know what the project should look like when it’s done,” he said.

The unrestored lands are overgrown with palms. In aerial photographs, Duever pointed out, they look like corn fields.  A more natural system has a diversity of upland and wetland habitats where cypress and pines can grow.

When the canals pulled all the water out of the ecosystem, fires were more apt to ravage the forests. And since the land was drier, palms more easily took over. Draining the wetlands not only affected animal species, but plants, too.

“There were catastrophic fires from overdraining,” Cornell said. “Putting water back into the landscape will keep the fires from being so destructive.”

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A woodstork perches in the Picayune Strand recently. The strand is undergoing a massive restoration effort that will make it into a wetland. The project is 70 percent completed and expected to be finished by 2024

After restoration is complete, grasses and sedges will be able to recover within 10 years or so, Duever said. That growth will form the structure of the ecological community.

“It will be on the order of 100 to 200 years when full restoration is seen in the Picayune Strand,” he said.

Pines will regenerate within 25 to 50 years and small cypress forests will fully form within 50 to 100 years. This is all due to the restored sheet flow providing a natural way to tame the fires that killed off the diversity.

“What we’re doing here is so much simpler than restoration on the East Coast. We’re restoring the sheet flow, then letting nature take its course,” Duever said.

The four canals in Picayune run mostly north-south with a few east-west jogs at the southernmost boundary of the project. The Prairie and Merritt canals are on the eastern half of the property and Miller and Faka Union are on the western side. All four canals drain into the Faka Union at the bottom.

One goal of the project is to “plug” the canals rather than fill them in completely, Duever said. The Prairie canal is 68% plugged and Merritt is 46% plugged — work has finished on these canals.

“The canals are not filled in 100% because some of the spoil (the material removed when creating the canals) has degraded,” Duever said.

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The hope is that the unplugged portions of each canal fill in over time as sheet flow carries sediment south. Each canal is about 10 feet deep and ranges between 40 and 80 feet wide. Engineers will plug a total of 48 miles of canals, then three large pump stations will push water out into spreaders that will restore a more natural flow.

As the pumps send the water south, the 270 miles of road in the original development would impede its progress. In September, the final road removal contract was approved, and work should begin in November. To date, 75% of the roads have been removed.

A few roads will remain even after all work has completed. Everglades Boulevard, the main access point to Picayune, Steward Boulevard and roads to the pump stations will all stay, though the asphalt has been scraped from all of them.

The Merritt canal pump station is the first of three to begin spreading water from canals and start the slow-moving sheet flow restoration in the Picayune Strand Restoration Project.

“The remaining roads won’t affect sheet flow a lot,” Duever said.

One of the final steps of restoration is the southwestern protection features meant to protect adjacent Lipman Farms from flooding. The easternmost canals cannot be plugged until these features are complete.

Lipman Farms is about 5,000 acres and sits on the southwestern edge of the project’s boundaries. The farm’s director is part of the briefing team that works with the Corps.

“We’re very supportive of the project,” said Jamie Weisman, the director of Lipman Produce. “The Corps and (South Florida Water Management) district have been very forthcoming and allowed us to have input.”

Ibis fly over the Picayune Strand recently. Picayune Strand is undergoing a massive restoration effort and is 70 percent done.

Weisman said the farm has been involved in the restoration process since the beginning of what is called the southwest protection feature.

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This feature is the last piece of the Picayune restoration and is still in planning stages. Plans for a levee around the farm will protect the private lands from flooding.

“We’ve got some concepts and then we need to get into more of a detailed design to nail down the dimensions and the footprint of the levee,” Baisden said. “We’ve started, and we anticipate awarding a construction contract in the summer of 2021.”

Part of the southwest protection feature will include culverts under U.S. 41 so water won’t overtake the road.

The district still has about 204 acres of private land to acquire, but Bartlett said those are going to be finalized at the next district meeting.

The district and the Corps are splitting the costs of the entire CERP. The large restoration project works by dividing projects between federal and state agencies, Bartlett said. In Picayune, the district acquired the land and built and will maintain the pump stations.

Ecologist Mike Duever is seen in the Picayune Strand at the plugged Merritt Canal recently. The strand is undergoing a massive restoration effort that will make it into a wetland. The project is 70 percent completed and expected to be finished by 2024.

The total estimate for the entire Picayune Strand restoration project is around $765 million, Bartlett said, and the Corps is fully funded to finish the engineering projects.

Now, only one pump is moving water into the system, but once the remaining roads are pulled up and the canals plugged, the other two pumps can start spreading water out. The district will oversee the operation of the pumps.

Bartlett and Baisden hope to see the project wrapped up by 2024 or 2025. There are currently 7,966 acres the district considers fully restored. 

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While the grand total of restoration is 55,000 acres, Duever is certain the figure will look more like 100,000 acres. The Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and South Belle Meade are adjacent to the Picayune project, and he believes they will also benefit from restoration.

“There aren’t many places you can do this much good,” Duever said. “That’s the reason I picked to work on it. I know what it’s supposed to look like when it’s done.”

Karl Schneider is an environment reporter at Naples Daily News. Follow him on Twitter: @karlstartswithk.

By the numbers:

Total restoration area: 55,000 acres

Total cost (SFWMD estimate): $765 million

Work began: 2004

Work estimated to end: 2024

Total roads to be removed: 270 miles

Total canals to be plugged: 48 miles

Remaining acres still in private lands: 203.8

Number of original land owners in South Golden Gate Estates: 19,000