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USACE Everglades Restoration Picks up the Pace

“There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the Earth, remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them … They are unique also in the simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose.”
– Marjory Stoneman Douglas, The Everglades: River of Grass, 1947

America’s Everglades, the largest subtropical ecosystem in the country, hosted several historic groundbreakings in 2010-2011 that are moving one of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) largest restoration programs forward at a new pace. The projects will significantly contribute to the overall goal of restoring and achieving sustainability of the Everglades ecosystem.

“It’s about getting the water right, in terms of quantity, quality, distribution, and timing,” said Stuart J. Appelbaum, chief of Jacksonville District’s Planning and Policy Division. “Our focus is and always has been getting the right amount of water of the right type to the right places at the right time.”


Responding to the Nation’s Needs

In 1947, Congress established Everglades National Park – the largest national park east of the Mississippi River – to preserve its unique landscape and protect its diverse, intricate ecosystem. Water once flowed freely from the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee, then south in a shallow, slow-moving sheet of water over about 11,000 square miles. But as development grew in South Florida, so too did the need to channel and control the waters.

In response to deadly flooding in South Florida in the early 1900s, Congress authorized the Central and Southern Florida Project in 1948. Together with the state of Florida, USACE Jacksonville District constructed and managed an elaborate water management system consisting of 1,000 miles of canals, 720 miles of levees, and more than 1,500 water control structures – the largest civil works project of its time.

Unfortunately, these alterations also had unintended adverse environmental consequences for much of the South Florida ecosystem, and with the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2000, Congress approved the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a holistic program that will restore and sustain hydrological and biological characteristics that defined the original pre-drainage Everglades. The need to restore more natural water flow to Everglades National Park is a paramount goal and a key driver of the restoration efforts.

More than 50 projects are included in CERP, each one comprised of one or more of the following features: surface water storage reservoirs, aquifer storage and recovery, stormwater treatment areas, operational changes, seepage management, sheetflow barrier removal, and other components such as invasive plant eradication and wetlands restoration.

WRDA of 2007 authorized for construction of the Picayune Strand Restoration, Indian River Lagoon-South, and the Site 1 Impoundment/Fran Reich Preserve projects.

USACE and the U.S. Department of Interior are the lead federal agencies for implementation of the program, working in partnership with the lead non-federal sponsor, the South Florida Water Management District (SWFMD), the state of Florida, and other local sponsors.


Foundation Projects

Years before CERP was approved in WRDA of 2000, a series of projects, which have become known as Foundation Projects, formed the foundation for CERP and are interrelated to the overall efforts to restore the South Florida ecosystem.

Cypress trees in Everglades National Park, Fla. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo

One such project, Kissimmee River Restoration, is so successful that it served as a catalyst that proved USACE’s ability to perform large-scale ecosystem restoration. Covering 3,000 square miles and stretching from the southern Orlando area south to Lake Okeechobee, the project is already surpassing anticipated environmental results. When completed, it will restore more than 40 square miles of river and floodplain ecosystem, including 43 miles of meandering river channel and 27,000 acres of wetlands. Construction is currently under way on the C-37 widening portion of the project, located in the upper reach, which will help to maintain the existing level of flood risk management for the Headwaters Chain of Lakes.

Modified Water Deliveries (MWD) to Everglades National Park has four major components with a goal of restoring the natural hydrologic conditions in the park, which had been altered by the construction of roads, levees, and canals. The major components of MWD, all of which are necessary to provide substantial flow increases to Everglades National Park, are the  8.5 Square Mile Area Flood Mitigation Project, Tamiami Trail Modifications, Conveyance and Seepage Control Features, and the Combined Operation Plan.

Construction of the long-awaited $81 million Tamiami Trail Project in Miami-Dade County, a key MWD component, began in February 2010. The project includes a 1-mile bridge and raising and reinforcing an additional 9.7 miles of road, allowing increased water flows that are essential to the health and viability of the Everglades.


First CERP Groundbreakings

In January 2010, the $53 million Picayune Strand Restoration Project became the first CERP project to break ground. With construction of the Merritt Canal Pump Station in Collier County, removal of 95 miles of roads and installation of 55 plugs in the Merritt Canal, the project will restore water flow across the landscape, rehydrate drained wetlands, improve estuarine waters, and return habitat to threatened wildlife communities. The Picayune Strand Project involves restoring 55,000 acres of wetland and upland habitat.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection accomplished the monumental task of acquiring all of the thousands of individual parcels within the Picayune Strand that were necessary to undertake the restoration. “That is one of the most mind-boggling, amazing accomplishments of the project,” said Eric Bush, assistant chief of Jacksonville District’s Everglades Division. “It illustrates perfectly the partnership aspect of CERP.”

Partial funding for the Picayune Strand/Merritt Canal Pump Station Project was provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, and just over a year since construction began, the project is almost half-complete in terms of both expenditures and schedule.

Phase 1 of the 1,800-acre Site 1 Impoundment Project/Fran Reich Preserve, adjacent to one of Florida’s natural wonders, the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Palm Beach County, began in October 2010. The project will include a 1,600-acre above-ground impoundment with 13,280-acre-feet capacity, reducing the amount of seepage loss and water supply withdrawals from the refuge and restoring a more naturally functioning area. The site is named for the late Fran Reich, who successfully led a battle against building a landfill on the property.

“It’s absolutely amazing what Fran Reich spurred for the future of this unique ecosystem … [which] will increase much-needed water storage capacity and water management flexibility,” said Col. Alfred A. Pantano Jr., Jacksonville District commander, at the project groundbreaking.

The Picayune Strand project is also critical to the survival of the endangered Florida panther, restoring its habitat and providing an uninterrupted wilderness corridor. National Park Service photo by Rodney Cammauf

In February 2011, a second Picayune Strand project, the Faka Union Canal Pump Station, broke ground in Collier County. The $79 million project includes the construction of the pump station and additional road removal and canal plugging. A construction contract for the third and final Picayune Strand project, the Miller Canal Pump Station, will be awarded in the future. When complete, the Picayune Strand Restoration Project will restore natural water flows across an 85-square-mile area, improving the area’s hydrology, allowing for the return of more balanced plant communities, increasing aquifer recharge, and sending fresh water in a more natural manner to the coastal estuaries. The project is also critical to the survival of the endangered Florida panther, restoring its habitat and providing an uninterrupted wilderness corridor.

“Our partnership with the state of Florida, the Army Corps, and many stakeholders to restore the 55,000-acre Picayune Strand is vital to this fragile ecosystem,” said Ken Salazar, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, at the groundbreaking. “From bridging the Tamiami Trail to the Site 1 Impoundment Project, our investments in Everglades restoration are investments in Florida’s future in ensuring clean water for its citizens and for the environment.”

SWFMD’s former Governing Board Chairman Eric Buermann said, “With the start of construction on the Faka Union Canal Pump Station, our federal partners at the Corps are further building on the significant restoration progress that has already been made at the Picayune Strand. This project provides an excellent example of the benefits that can be realized for South Florida’s ecosystem through [our] cooperative efforts.”


ARRA Infusion Supports Restoration

ARRA provided up to $96 million for restoration projects, including the aforementioned Kissimmee River Restoration, Picayune Strand/Merritt Canal Pump Station, and Site 1 Impoundment/Fran Reich Preserve Project.

ARRA also infused funding into several other restoration initiatives. In September 2010, Jacksonville District awarded a $1.6 million contract for the design and construction of a biocontrol rearing facility in Davie, Fla. The Melaleuca Mass Rearing Annex will help combat invasive plants in the Everglades, preventing them from degrading and damaging natural South Florida ecosystems and contributing to the quality of South Florida’s natural areas, native plants, and wildlife. Construction began in August 2011.

Also funded by ARRA, the Adaptive Assessment and Monitoring (AAM) program will address gaps in knowledge regarding the relationships within and among natural and social systems. Monitoring and assessing scientific data will provide new insight that will be translated into project and/or program policies. It will also provide information required to evaluate responses to CERP implementation, determine progress toward achieving restoration goals, and indicate needed revisions and refinements to the plan.

Jacksonville District, along with several contractors and graduate students from the University of Miami and Florida International University worked cooperatively to complete the system-wide AAM program, which is now being implemented. Five ongoing monitoring activities were improved and work included enhancements to the South Florida topographic and surface water monitoring network, monitoring analysis tools, and mapping of biological and geological habitat features of estuarine environments.


Looking Toward the Future

Major projects scheduled for completion in the next five years include Kissimmee River Restoration, the C-111 Spreader Canal-Western Project, Modified Water Deliveries to Everglades National Park, and the Site 1 Impoundment Project.

The Indian River Lagoon-South Project, including the C-44 Reservoir and Storm Water Treatment Area,  broke ground Oct. 28, 2011. It will improve the health and sustainability of the St. Lucie Estuary and Indian River Lagoon by capturing peak flows and runoff during rain events, storing that water for later release, and treating the water to improve its quality.

American alligator. Environmental science is yielding a greater understanding of water depths, velocities, and flooding cycles that change the Park’s topography and the impacts on plants and animals that thrive there. National Park Service photo by Rodney Cammauf

Project Implementation Reports (PIRs), which contain detailed planning and design information that support USACE recommendations for authorization to Congress, are being developed for Broward County Water Preserve Areas, Loxahatchee River Watershed Restoration Project, Water Conservation Area 3 Decompartmentalization and Sheetflow Enhancement, and Lake Okeechobee Watershed.

A PIR was completed and the Chief of Engineers’ Report for the Caloosahatchee River (C-43) West Basin Storage Reservoir was signed in March 2010, and a PIR for the C-111 Spreader Canal-Western Project, completed in 2009, is expected to result in a signed Chief of Engineers’ Report in 2012. A draft PIR for the Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands (Phase 1) was published in the Federal Register in February 2010.


Benefits Realized

USACE and its partners have pioneered new work in environmental science throughout the restoration effort. Much has been learned through rigorous research, applied science, extensive monitoring, and the development and refinement of computer models.

“We have a better understanding of how water depths, velocities, and flooding cycles change Everglades topography and impact the plants and animals that thrive there,” said Appelbaum. “Further, we are incorporating emerging information about climate change, such as rainfall and temperature patterns, sea level rise, and changing salinity zones, which is transforming our approach to Everglades restoration.”

As a result of skillfully applied environmental science, adaptability to changing conditions, and comprehensive monitoring, environmental, social, and economic benefits are already being realized. Returning the historic flow of water to the Everglades system will benefit the natural habitat for more than 60 federally listed threatened and endangered species and replenish underground aquifers that supply drinking water to the population of South Florida.

At the Kissimmee River, a total of 22 miles of meandering river has been restored to date, and seasonal rains and flows now inundate more than 15,000 acres of restored floodplain habitat. After an absence of 40 years, abundant and diverse wildlife has rebounded and now calls this area home. Monitoring over the past 10 years has documented that environmental response to the restoration has surpassed all expectations. Wading birds, black bears, and Florida panthers have been observed within the 13,000 acres of restored habitat at Picayune Strand, even before the projects have been completed.

More than 6,000 jobs have been created in Florida as a result of the restoration effort, with current construction contracts infusing nearly $470 million into the economy.


Achieving the Dream

USACE Jacksonville District and its federal, state, and local partners are fully committed to achieving the dream of a healthy, sustainable South Florida ecosystem that supports ecological diversity and quality of life. Significant progress has been made over the past year, and future plans are well under way that will contribute to achieving the goal of restoring the environmental treasure that is America’s Everglades.

This article first appeared in the 2011-2012 edition of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces publication.