Picayune Canal
Photo Credit: Conservancy Biologist Leif Johnson

Picayune Strand Restoration Project poised to enter home stretch

By Marisa Carrozzo | Conservancy Everglades & Water Policy Manager

The Conservancy is pleased to share with you some great news. As a result of our long-term commitment and that of other stakeholders, the alarms raised regarding water quality as part of the final steps in completing the Picayune Strand Restoration Project (PSRP) were heard. The South Florida Water Management District approved taking action to specifically address the outstanding water quality concerns.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has a long and involved history with the PSRP. Picayune is the result of the quintessential “swamp land” hoax perpetrated upon unsuspecting buyers throughout the nation in the 1950/60s. This area in central-southern Collier County was parceled up, sold off, and a network of canals and roads were built destroying and changing both water flow and habitat. After the planned development failed, an extensive effort began to acquire the parcels from thousands of individual owners. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida pitched in to help contact those owners, provided interim funding and worked collaboratively to transfer ownership of the properties to the state.

Birds take flight — Wood storks, great egrets
Photo Credit: Conservancy Biologist Leif Johnson

Acquiring the properties was only the first step. Reversing the damage was the second. Picayune became one of the first generation projects of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) and was the first CERP project to kick off this ecosystem-wide restoration effort. The major features of the project involve plugging 48 miles of canals, removing 260 miles of roads, and constructing three major pump stations, in order to restore a more natural sheet flow across the landscape — all of which will reestablish more than 55,000 acres of wetland and upland habitat. As components of this project were planned, built, and came online, the Conservancy remained extensively engaged. In fact, our science team conducted several years of studies to assess the benefits of restoration on the habitat and species within the project footprint. We have also remained focused within our policy team on supporting sound project planning and consistent funding to make restoration a reality.

Today, the PSRP is approximately 80% complete. Three massive pump stations have been constructed, and many miles of canals have been plugged along with the degrading and removal of roads to allow water to flow. One of the last hurdles is the Southwest Protection Feature (SWPF) a 7.1-mile levee and canal, plus culverts, which is being designed to protect adjacent properties (primarily in agriculture) from any potential flooding risks from the restored flow of water across the landscape.

Map from Army Corps of Engineers
Map from Army Corps of Engineers

The SWPF is one of the last remaining construction prerequisites to plugging the final canals and full implementation of all the project’s restoration features and ecological benefits. Until it is built, only about 30% of the ecological benefits can be realized due to construction and operational constraints in place until this project component is complete.

For over a year, the Conservancy has been working closely with local stakeholders and the agencies to address outstanding concerns and issues with the SWPF component. While necessary for the whole of the project, where the water flow from the new canal will be moved (under US 41 and into Collier Seminole State Park) and what is IN the water (high levels of nutrient pollution from the adjacent agricultural area) is a serious concern. Cleaning up the water and ensuring it is conveyed to the appropriate places in the park to avoid important upland habitats — like those utilized by gopher tortoises and other species — must be addressed for the project to be successful. One of the many intended benefits of the PSRP was to reduce point source discharges from the canal systems (Miller, Faka Union, Merritt, and Prairie Canals) into the downstream estuaries, thereby improving the health of these critical resources — including the 10,000 Island National Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately, the current plan for the SWPF will transfer the problem from one downstream area to another, which is inconsistent with restoration goals.

Gopher Tortoise
Photo Credit: Conservancy Biologist Leif Johnson

Therefore, the decision by the South Florida Water Management District to take steps to address these final water quality issues is worth applauding. At their Meeting on May 14th, the Governing Board approved a study and working group to specifically address concerns associated with existing pollution runoff and the SWPF. The Conservancy will be serving on the feasibility study group, along with partner groups and local stakeholders, and we will be focused on achieving a solution-driven outcome that upholds the true spirit of this collaborative restoration effort.

Stay tuned for future updates as the study progresses.

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