Sending water south: Everglades restoration efforts get boost with new pump station in Picayune
Everglades restoration efforts took a step forward recently in the Picayune Strand State Forest when the largest of three pump stations began sending water south in sheets.
The Faka Union pump station, situated on a canal at the north end of what was once the failed housing scheme called South Golden Gate Estates, came online this month after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plugged just more than three miles of the canal.
The South Florida Water Management District operates the pump stations, meant to rehydrate the drained wetlands south of I-75.
Land developers in the 1960s built a grid of roads and dug miles of canals to make way for houses that would never be built. The efforts in Picayune, part of the larger Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, will restore the Everglades back into the “river of grass.”
The project includes removing roads and logging trams, plugging the canals and operating the pump stations — all designed to restore water flows close to what they were before development.
Normally, the work in Picayune was done one project after the other. But during a Big Cypress Basin Board meeting in 2019, newly appointed chairwoman Charlette Roman asked the Corps to think differently.
“(The Corps’) gave a presentation and what I challenged them with was what can we do now?” Roman said in a recent interview. “What is it that we can do now so that these pump stations — that are fully constructed — can now start providing benefits. Do we have to wait?”
At her request, district staff and the Corps worked on additional modeling and determined that once the roughly three miles of canal at the south end of the Faka Union pump station were plugged, the water could start to move.
“That meeting was in October of 2019 when we talked about it, and here it is just shy of two years later and we have turned on the pump station,” Roman said. “Water is flowing south and we’re getting restoration benefits. That is exciting.”
Mike Duever, an ecologist with the district who has been working on Picayune restoration for 21 years, said now that the Faka Union pump station is running, well over 50% of the site is hydrologically restored.
“Even more is partially restored because of the effects of plugging the Faka Union canal extends beyond to the west,” he said.
Almost the whole eastern portion of the Picayune project has been restored, he said.
Duever has been monitoring the wells at the project and said that while the water levels haven’t made it above ground yet, they haven’t been higher than they are now since Hurricane Irma hit in 2017.
Aside from plugging the Faka Union, canals at the southern end of the project that flow east to west have been plugged. Effects from plugged canals can be seen two to three miles away.
Taking that into account, Duever said the restoration footprint reaches beyond the physical boundary of the 55,000-acre Picayune Strand State Forest.
“Including coastal areas that were cut off by point discharge, there is probably 100,000 acres being benefited by what’s happening in Picayune. To me that’s big,” he said.
Now that the pump station is running, Duever said there are two big benefits: subduing exotic vegetation and stopping troublesome fires.
Every percentage increase of hydrologic restoration has a significant effect on exotic vegetation.
“There’s probably some of the worst palm vegetation along the upper portion of the Fake Union canal,” he said. “Unfortunately, flooding won’t be enough to kill enough of it, but it will reduce further increase in palm out there.”
Moving water out of the canals and back to a natural sheetflow will help reduce the severity and frequency of fire hazards during the dry season.
“This is a big step forward, but we’re not done yet,” Roman said. “We’re going to keep working until we get it finished and cross the finish line.”
Waiting on the Southwest
With two pump stations now operational in the project, one remains ready and waiting.
The Miller pump station to the west is the second largest of the three but the district cannot start operations until private agricultural lands in the southwest are fully protected.
The Corps started construction this month on the southwest protection feature.
The protection features include a 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.
Once that feature is built, all three pump stations will operate at capacity, restoring the River of Grass, sending water south and rehabilitating wetland wildlife habitat.
The areas just south of Picayune’s footprint contain waters “designated worthy of special protection because of its natural attributes,” according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Sending water from the southwest corner of the restoration site into these Outstanding Florida Waters has worried some environmental groups and a cohort of stakeholders was developed to come up with potential solutions in a water quality study.
While not officially part of the restoration project, a water quality study for the area is moving forward but faces a problem: land availability.
The Big Cypress Basin’s governing board set aside around $300,000 in funding during its July meeting to begin a siting process.
“Once we find the land, it needs to be purchased,” the basin’s administrator, Lisa Koehler, said. “Then the district will start modeling.”
A suite of potential solutions has been identified in hopes of removing identified nutrient pollution before it reaches waters to the south.
Meredith Budd, with the Florida Wildlife Federation, has been part of the study’s stakeholder meetings.
“When you have an input of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous and we’re cleaning it up with implementation of water quality projects, that is a great benefit,” Budd said. “But if we don’t fix the source, it’s going to be a continuing issue.”
Chairwoman Roman said that while anything that affects water quality is a concern, focusing on the source of the pollution is outside the scope of the water quality study.
“In this case, there is some monitoring being done in the area by Collier County, and the basin staff is working with the county on whether or not that’s adequate,” she said.
Roman said the study is still very early in the process and the group has learned a lot from the water quality measures being done farther north at the C-43 reservoir near the Lee-Hendry county line.
“Think of it, if you will, similar to a reservoir,” she said. “That water, we would want to clean in some respects before it got released into those Outstanding Florida Waters, which are south across U.S. 41 in Rookery Bay, Collier-Seminole and Ten Thousand Islands and all of those great natural ecosystems there.”
Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk