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Picayune Strand Restoration Project Sets High Standards

Mon July 26, 2010 - Southeast Edition
Lori Lovely

Although many construction projects begin with a certain amount of demo work, the Picayune Strand Restoration Project takes that practice to the extreme by trying to eradicate all signs of development and restore an area of native wetlands to pristine condition.

In conjunction with the South Florida Water Management District, and with the cooperation of dozens of local, state and federal agencies and tribal governments, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District, awarded a $53 million contract for Everglades restoration in Collier County to Harry Pepper & Associates, Jacksonville, Fla. The contract calls for construction of a pump station, plugging of 13.5 mi. (21.7 km) of canals and removal of 95 mi. (152 km) of crumbling roads. Construction is scheduled to start in December and will take about three years to complete.

As the first federally funded construction project of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, commonly called “CERP,” it is what Lacy Shaw, project manager, called a huge milestone. CERP provides a framework for restoring, preserving and protecting the south Florida ecosystem that surrounds the Everglades, while providing for other water-related needs of the region. Plans call for a series of more than 60 ecological and water system improvements to be made over the next three decades.

Wetland Wasteland

The project area includes 55,000 acres (22,258 ha) of native Florida wetlands and uplands located between Alligator Alley (Interstate 75) and the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) in the southwestern corner of the state. Previously, the land was a privately owned subdivision called Southern Golden Gate Estates that was developed in the 1950s, according to Tom Leicht, project engineer.

Canals were dredged to drain the site for the housing development and roads were installed for access, explains USACE’s Outreach and Communication Manager Nanciann Regalado. Canal excavation and road construction disrupted the natural water flow by draining water away from the wetlands, resulting in over-drained land because of the altered flow and leading to reduced aquifer recharge, greatly increased freshwater point source discharges to southern estuaries and permitted invasion of upland and non-native vegetation. Past dredging of the C-111 canal redirected water flows to the east, reducing flow through Taylor Slough into the northern Florida Bay, impacting fisheries and ecology. Although almost entirely surrounded by refuge lands, the area suffered from a loss of habitat and ecological connectivity.

Surrounding public lands include the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and Collier-Seminole State Park. “It’s the hole in the middle of the donut,” Regalado visualized. Its central location among these nature preserves and wildlife areas reflects its importance to the ecosystem connectivity of the entire region. Loss of that connectivity was detrimental to preservation of sufficient habitat expanses to support the endangered Florida panther and other wildlife.

The developer built a few houses — lots were sold sight-unseen, predominantly to northern buyers — before going “belly-up,” Regalado said. For years, the area “just sat.” Eventually, the few houses built in this swamp land were condemned. In 1974, Collier County commissioned the first study to determine how to reverse the impacts of the failed development. Land acquisition began in the 1980s, with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection spending roughly $250 million on land purchases.

“The state bought the land as part of the state forest,” Regalado said. By the time the Division of Forestry acquired the defunct housing development, much of the infrastructure was in decay — old access roads were deteriorated. “It was a grid with crumbling roads.”

To expedite restoration, in a separate project in 2006 the South Florida Water Management District plugged the northern seven miles of the Prairie Canal, which successfully reduced drainage of the adjacent Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. They also removed about 200 mi. (321 km) of roadways adjacent to the canal between the Prairie and Merritt canals and cleared exotic plant species from the canal banks. “It’s amazing to see the effects already,” exclaimed Shaw. “Growth has already started and hundreds of birds have returned. It exceeded expectations of the scientists.”

Picayune Priority

Three years later, groundbreaking for the PSRP drew a big crowd. “Senator Bill Nelson was there,” Regalado recalled. “The Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Services and a lot of others came.” With about $40 million in funds by Congressional appropriation as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the project is expected to have an accelerated construction schedule and create much-needed jobs in southwestern Florida.

The restoration project involves removing 227 mi. (365 km) of crumbling roads and non-native vegetation and plugging 48 mi. (77 km) of canals originally dug to provide flood protection for the sprawling, now abandoned Golden Gate Estates residential project. Three new pump stations will allow natural resource and water managers to direct fresh water to drained wetlands as well as to maintain current levels of flood reduction benefits north of the project. Shaw added that the building of a levee system will contribute to maintaining the same level of flood reduction north of levee as before development. South of the levee, water will be pumped to spread out and rehydrate the land. The Corps is careful to specify that the project is not designed to provide flood control; it will only continue flood reduction at the current level north of the project area. “The water flowed south to the Gulf of Mexico,” Shaw noted. “This will create overland flow, allowing it to return to swamp conditions. We are ’re-wilding’ the land.”

Harry Pepper & Associates will begin by removing 95 mi. of roads and non-native vegetation and will install 55 plugs in 13.5 mi. of the Merritt Canal. Then, Corps contractors will build an 810 cu. ft. (23 cu m)-per-second pump station and spreader canal that will allow natural resource and water managers to direct fresh water to drained wetlands, in addition to maintaining flood reduction levels. This will restore fresh water wetlands, and will improve estuarine water quality by increasing groundwater recharge and reducing large and unnatural freshwater inflows.

Benefits of the completed project include eco-system restoration through recharge of the aquifer and rehydration of the land. This process will help protect the water supply and prevent saltwater intrusion. That, in turn, will restore and enhance the habitat for fish and wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. As Leicht explained, fish spawn there. “This is a nursery for all the fish of the Gulf. The water affects the fish. With a sheet flow, you get the right combination of fresh and salt water.”

The project also will reduce or eliminate over-drainage of adjacent sensitive ecosystems, including the adjacent Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, and reduce freshwater releases (point discharges) to improve the health and productivity of downstream estuaries. “The south end where it discharges was a point discharge,” Shaw explained. “Now it will spread that discharge, which benefits the estuary because the storm water runoff is filtered and there’s less salinity. The quality of water discharged is improved because it’s filtered by the ground.”

Part of the plan to return the area to pristine conditions includes a move to staunch the growth of invasive plant species like the Brazilian pepper and regrow native species, Shaw said. That, together with flood reduction protection for Northern Golden Gate Estates and adjacent private properties, helps preserve upland habitat for the greater Everglades ecosystem, including the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

In a report called a Biological Opinion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service quantified the long-term beneficial effects of the Picayune Strand Restoration Project for the Florida panther. The Army Corps of Engineers provided funding for a panther-prey study that documented the use of Picayune Strand by the Florida panther and its primary prey: white-tailed deer and feral hogs. The study included placing infrared remote cameras at regular intervals across the site. Biologists will use the data collected over two years as reference when post-restoration data is collected, and provides a scientific benchmark for future monitoring and evaluation.

“A key issue on this project was to protect wildlife,” Regalado said. The baseline survey of panthers and black bears provides useful information on numbers and locations of wildlife. In addition to the pre-construction survey, ongoing information is being collected. As Shaw stated, they discovered more panthers than expected. “Our hope [for the project] is that once the ground is inundated and natural hydrology occurs, the regeneration of wetland plants, such as cypress trees, will be more conducive to panther prey and other wildlife and this area will become a connector to neighboring areas.”

Just Another Day on The Job

To achieve pre-dredging levels, crews will plug the canals, remove the old roads and build three pump stations to redirect water into sheet flow across the land. Shaw emphasized that they are plugging the canals at road intersections, not filling them. The three canals vary in size, but on average are approximately 12 ft. (3.6 m) deep and 75 ft. (22.8 m) wide.

The canals, whose sole purpose was to drain the land, will be plugged with spoil from the roads that are being removed. “We’ll scrape dirt off the road and dump it into the canal,” Leicht stated. The roads, which are severely degraded, are asphalt, although he said there’s “not much asphalt left.” Crews will be required to scrape off the top portion of the asphalt and stockpile it to maintain for road maintenance. The crushed stone road base will be used to plug the canals. A few contaminated sites are being cleaned up, Shaw interjected.

Three pump stations will be constructed on the north side of the project area — one on each existing canal. Work on the two largest — the Merritt and the Faka Union pump stations — will start in June. Leicht, who said he’s “done a lot of pump stations,” indicates that “the most expensive piece [of the project] is the pump station.”

In addition to the a 225 cfs pump stations, the project calls for a 590-acre (239 ha) Frog Pond detention area to create a mound of groundwater to the south and west, preventing groundwater seepage to the east and improving water delivery (quantity, timing and distribution) to Eastern Florida Bay, as well as a spreader canal to replace existing portions of the lower C-111 canal and enhance sheetflow to Florida Bay.

Two different contractors are spearheading work on the first two pumps. Shaw admitted it’s been a challenge to coordinate access for both of them to work simultaneously. There are no environmental restraints, but because all workers must stay within the permitted area of the construction footprint, the site could become congested with equipment that includes graders, end loaders and off-road trucks.

We have not moved dirt yet,” she noted, “but the stars are aligning.” The target completion date is September 2012 for major construction, exclusive of the 12-month performance period that’s part of the contract. Leicht explained that the South Florida Water Management will use that time as a “shakedown period to try out equipment. They will run a full season to experience fluctuations and check for problems while the contractor is still onsite.” That period can be extended an additional six months to accommodate a full season, if necessary.

Since they have to avoid working during the wet season because it’s swampy, the schedule could get compressed, making coordination of efforts even more complicated. The entire project requires a lot of coordination, Shaw added, which also includes coordinating with forest rangers and park visitors. Along with wildlife and weather, coordination is one of the biggest challenges of the project. So far, it isn’t expected to affect the work schedule, which is slated as a standard work week. But the Corps wants to ensure things run smoothly. “There are a lot of eyes looking at this project. Fish & Wildlife Services is involved.” Leicht said there are a lot of stakeholders involved, including the Corps and the water management district. “It’s hard to coordinate all of them, but we try to include everyone as part of the team.”

That team effort means reinforcing environmental awareness and emphasizing the project goals. “We had a kickoff meeting to make sure the contractor was aware that it’s an environmental restoration project,” Shaw indicated. “It’s important that we don’t disturb the area; everyone must stay within the footprint.” As Regalado explained, “It’s a sensitive environment; we must protect it.”

They also must report all wildlife spotted. “We’re cognizant of the habitat with endangered species,” Shaw continued. “We’re aware of the wildlife surveys on denning panthers and the possibility of wildlife encounters. Through the Environmental Education Program, we educated the workers on wildlife and what to do if they encountered any.”

Dubbed a “crown jewel” of CERP by Paul Souza, field supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s South Florida Office, who marvels that the area was once “slated to become a suburb of Naples,” Picayune Strand is expected to show the positive effects of restored hydrology in a fairly short amount of time.

“It doesn’t happen very often that someone restores property to natural habitat and erases the human footprint. Not many areas are being put back,” Regalado reflected.

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