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After spending more than $700 million, the nearly 2 decade old project in the Everglades' Picayune Strand is nearing completion. Naples Daily News

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Pump stations and spreader swales meant to direct water south stand ready to move sheet flow to tens of thousands of acres in the Picayune Strand State Forest in southern Collier County.

The restoration in Picayune is part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program aimed to restore about 55,000 acres of the Everglades back into the “river of grass.”

But before anyone can flip the switch and send the water south, protection features must be built around agricultural lands at the southwest corner of the Picayune Strand Restoration Project. Two construction jobs to build these features are in the process of state and federal permitting.

The overall 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 a planned housing scheme failed in the 1950s.

Right now, 80% of the project’s funding has been spent, but without the protection features in place, the Picayune Strand restoration area is only realizing about 20% of the benefits.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a supplemental environmental assessment last month outlining plans to build the final touches of the Picayune restoration project.

The protection features include a 7.5-mile levee around the eastern boundary of the agricultural lands and a series of conveyance features, or culverts, meant to carry the water under U.S. 41 and CR-92, according to a May 2020 document prepared by the Corps.

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

Both projects, which are still in the planning stages, should be completed by 2024, said Stephen Baisden, the Corp’s project manager for Picayune.

These features are meant to prevent flooding of the agricultural lands adjacent to the restoration project.

Local environmental and conservation groups are happy with the progress in the state forest but hope water quality and wildlife concerns are addressed before final plans are laid out for the protection features.

“It’s very positive that this endeavor is going forward,” said Marissa Carrozzo, the Everglades and water policy manager at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “We have high hopes for a solutions-driven process that will get us to where we need to be at the end of the day.”

Nutrient pollutants

At the southwest corner of the restoration, at the juncture of U.S. 41 and Tomato Road, the South Florida Water Management District has documented high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in canals. Excess nutrients in water can cause dramatic shifts in ecosystems leading to nonnative plant species and algae blooms.

Once the Corps awards construction contracts and the culverts are built for the southwest protection feature, conservation groups worry the nutrient pollution will be swept farther south into Collier-Seminole State Park and the estuaries leading to Ten Thousand Islands.

“Different nutrient concentrations can impact vegetation communities,” Carrozzo said. “If you send higher nutrient concentrations into the state park, you could see habitat changes and more exotics moving in. Higher nutrients will have the potential to feed algae blooms and cause other detrimental impacts.”

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Environmental groups are asking for water quality monitoring at the southwest protection feature as well as an adaptive management policy that is able to handle any problems that may arise. Stakeholders have formed a working group to discuss potential solutions.

“I applaud the water management district and DEP for starting this process,” said Brad Cornell, Southwest Florida policy associate with Audubon Florida. “We need to have the state start the process to fix water quality problems. Before water gets moved with the (protection) feature, let’s fix it now with stormwater treatment areas and best management practices for farms. Let’s have a collaborative process with stakeholders and come up with some strategies that we think will work to clean up that water.”

The Corps responded by saying it would monitor areas of the project to make sure the project didn't adversely affect water quality.

“An adaptive management framework would be developed and implemented if construction and/or operation of the project causes adverse effects,” the Corps’ response says.

Beyond monitoring the waters’ nutrient levels, it’s possible to reduce those levels with different strategies, Carrozzo said. One potential solution is to create filter marshes that act as a sort of sponge to absorb excess nitrogen and phosphorus. Essentially constructed wetlands, different vegetations can filter water moving through.

“It’s a matter of wanting to ensure restoration success while also avoiding any unintended impacts to resources downstream,” she said.

Conservation groups are asking that water protection features be added to the Corps’ final plans for the protection feature. And as the culverts are built under the roads, these groups see an opportunity to not only improve water quality but provide accessibility for some of Florida’s iconic wildlife.

Wildlife habitat

One of the biggest threats to the Florida panther is road traffic. So far this year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has documented 14 panther deaths in the state, 12 of those from vehicle collisions.

One proposed solution to the high mortality rate panther face from vehicles is adding wildlife crossings, similar to those in place under Alligator Alley.

“The segment of 41 that’s being modified as part of conveyance structures is a hot spot for panther mortality,” said Meredith Budd, regional policy director with the Florida Wildlife Federation.

Five panthers have been killed in that area since 2003 and a tagged panther's home range overlaps the project area, which highlights the importance to have the ability for animals to be able to cross the road safely, she said.

Read: Everglades advocates call for climate-change resilience and unified voice

The Corps considered implementing wildlife crossings in its original plans but decided against it.

“They are asking us to reconsider,” Baisden said. “We will take another look at a wildlife crossing in one or all of the culverts along U.S. 41. Some details need to be worked out in terms of that ask from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Department of Transportation, but we’re going to reconvene internally here.”

Baisden said the Corps needs to consider what kind of impacts crossings would have on its schedule.

The restoration project in Picayune is part of panther mitigation for all of CERP, Budd said, so crossings would be consistent with the overall project goals.

“Crossings are a documented success that alleviate road mortality,” she said. “Where structures have been implemented, hot spots have decreased. There is opportunity for a functioning structure and whatever is both cost feasible and functional would be examined by engineering experts,”

The Picayune forest isn’t just home to ranging panthers, but endangered and threatened species such as red-cockaded woodpeckers and gopher tortoises are also found in the upland habitats.

The Picayune restoration is meant to create a sheet flow of water slowly moving south. This could mean that dry, upland pine habitats would be inundated with water, potentially destroying the dry habitat some wildlife depends on.

“The issues with the red-cockaded woodpecker and tortoises are similar,” Cornell said. “Both species depend on upland pine, and if they get too much water those pines die. So we want them to work with wildlife agencies, both state and federal, to come up with an adaptive plan to avoid flooding out and killing these pine areas.”

The Corps, however, says the red-cockaded woodpecker will not be affected by the restoration project.

“None of this construction we are proposing now will impact them,” Baisden said. “As we move forward, the Corps will investigate impacts to that area and what steps can we take to avoid impacts to the area. And if we can’t avoid them. what can we do to mitigate those impacts?”

Pulling permits

The Corps is working toward awarding two construction contracts for the levee and conveyance protection features but is waiting on other state and federal agencies for the go-ahead.

It is working with Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection to obtain a water quality certification for the water that is moved south into Collier-Seminole.

DEP will issue a Notice of Intent about the Corps’ plans that will be published in a local newspaper for 21 – 27 days. If it is not challenged by the public or other agencies, a final permit will allow them to move forward with construction contracts, Baisden said.

The second item the Corps is waiting on is a biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We need that to cover the endangered or threatened species out there,” Baisden said. “We need to complete all of those pieces before we receive proposals (for construction).”

The Corps hopes to have the biological opinion in July and will then have 45 days to finalize that aspect of the permitting process.

The two construction contracts will both be awarded in late September with the hope that both the levee and the culverts will be finished by 2024.

“We don’t want to delay this process,” Cornell said. “The Corps is running as fast as they can go. They’re getting it done, and now we all see the finish line and we want to get there but do it the right way without harming wildlife.”

More: Four artificial oyster reefs to be constructed at Rock Creek in Naples

And: Basin board approves aquatic plantings to help restore Lake Trafford

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
  • Original land owners in South Golden Gate Estates: 19,000

Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @karlstartswithk, email him at kschneider@gannett.com

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