GAINESVILLE, Fla., March 11, 2015 – Partnerships: they need a little give and take. Sometimes, they give a lot back. That was the case when the South Florida Water Management District teamed with USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, (NRCS) to restore a 533-acre area on the Williamson Ranch about six miles northwest of Indiantown, Fla.
In the 1940s and 1950s people ditched and drained Florida wetlands for agriculture, development and flood control. The South Florida Water Management District has been trying to reverse that, buying land to restore. The district is responsible for flood control, wetland protection and water quality, quantity and supply from Orlando down to the Keys, and restoring the Everglades is a priority. NRCS has been working with the water district on three projects in southern Florida to restore wetlands since 2002. The Williamson Ranch site is in the Allapattah Flats, an area that includes northern Martin County to southern St. Lucy County and critical to restoring the Everglades.
The district purchased the land with the help of Martin County. NRCS designed the project through the Wetlands Reserve Program, now called the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which provides cost-share for permanent conservation easements to spare the land from development and restore previously drained wetlands.
Water management staff started construction on the Williamson Ranch site in 2012. NRCS provided construction inspection and quality control. Work started by removing invasive species: Brazilian Pepper, old world climbing fern, mellaleuca trees and tropical soda apple. Construction workers finished repairing interior roads, installing two embankments and water control structures, smoothing the land, removing structures and building ditch plugs. The ditch plugs, embankments and structures retain water and create overland flow from one wetland to the next. Two water control structures built within the existing major channels to drain the property are used to better retain water and control the outflow from the easement.
Now the water levels are near where they were in the natural state. Although restoration was complete within the year, ongoing management includes prescribed burning and removing encroaching invasive weeds and brush. The restoration not only improves wildlife habitat and helps prevent flooding after a big rain, it improves water quality and quantity according to the water district’s principal engineer, Damon Meiers. “By holding the water back within the landscape and recharging the wetlands, nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus are filtered out before reaching critical water bodies such as Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades,” he said.
And adjacent to the Williamson Ranch are two more conservation easements to the south, creating a 16,011-acre contiguous restoration area. Having contiguous wetlands increases the hydrologic restoration of the easements and enhances the wildlife habitat in freshwater marshes and wet prairies. The ponded water in the restored wetlands over time seeps through the sand and recharges the Floridan Aquifer.
It is a slow process, and there is still more work to be done, but Meiers said the water quality going into the Everglades is much better than 10 years ago. And it was leveraging federal dollars that helped the district speed up restoring areas that will affect not only the Everglades, but other water bodies as well. “I think it’s a win, win for everyone involved,” he said.
Scott Turgeon, the NRCS biologist who worked with Meiers on the project agrees. “It allows us to pool our resources together and get a better restoration on the ground quicker, cheaper, more efficiently by using both agencies’ resources,” Turgeon said. And the easement cannot be altered, protecting habitat and wildlife forever. “I am a biologist, but on a personal level, these are my tax dollars at work also. I am a hunter, hiker and camper. I enjoy the outdoors; I take my children outdoors and it’s nice that I can be personally involved in saving land, keeping land as it is, preserving it in the future and improving it, all for habitat and wildlife. It makes me very proud to be a part of this program,” Turgeon said.