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To Save Water, Let it Meander

Published: April 17th, 2015

By: Dennis G. Corrick

Unlike California, Florida has a lot of water. But our average 59 inches of rainfall comes unevenly throughout the year, and we have limited storage to hold it until it is needed. And much of peninsular Florida has been artificially drained over the years, so most of its natural wide, shallow storage is no longer available. Over the past century, to move this water out of the way of agriculture and development, we built systems to rapidly send the water east and west, through the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers, to tide. With Florida’s insatiable growth, and the relatively modern awareness that natural systems require fresh water, too, Florida is now struggling to find ways to hold that water back.

But with very few exceptions, Florida’s geography is incompatible with the deep reservoirs used in other parts of the country to hold water. The high water table and aquifers dictate that we build large above-ground reservoirs, or disperse water over large swaths of land. Florida’s water falls largely within a rainy season, and any storage system would be hard-pressed to hold back these large quantities, so water flows from the center of the state towards Lake Okeechobee. The aging dike around the Lake has its limits, so the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers has dictated a lower lake level in recent years. But the water must go somewhere. Water quality concerns, laws and lawsuits dictate the quality of the water that can flow into what remains of the Everglades, so after peak rainfalls, the water is sent to our coastal estuaries, which is both harmful and wasteful.

Coastal residents demand that the water be sent south, towards the Everglades. But this fresh water historically sheet-flowed slowly from above Lake O to the Glades, filtered along the way by natural grasses before reaching Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Our wholesale alterations of these natural systems require that tremendous manmade systems be constructed in their place, to allow sediments in the water to settle and remove nutrients, both natural and otherwise, from the water before it enters the protected Everglades that remain. There is no equivalent to the Everglades in the world, so the science for treating this water is being developed in south Florida as we attempt to design and implement these new systems.

The natural systems north of Lake Okeechobee, referred to in plans as the Northern Everglades, are an important part of the Lake Okeechobee and Everglades improvements. The Kissimmee River historically meandered back and forth across its floodplain in a slow and methodical stroll to the big lake. The winding path, gentle slopes and miles of natural vegetation allowed the river to overflow its banks as needed, slowing the water, but also depositing sediments and nutrients along the floodplain before the water reached the lake.

In arguably one of the worst decisions in Florida’s history, the Corps of Engineers, with the support of state leaders, “improved” the Kissimmee River by designating it the “C-38 Canal,” straightening much of its course and cutting the distance the water traveled almost by half. This had the effect of creating a super-highway for water, sediment and nutrients to reach Lake Okeechobee. This error has now been recognized, and significant work has been done to restore the natural course of the river. But the lessons learned from C-38 can help us with some of our current problems.

Florida still has large cattle operations throughout the Northern Everglades. Like so much of Florida agriculture, they have fought development pressure over the years to keep their families and land in ranching. Historically, these ranches built structures to try to keep the meandering waters of the Kissimmee off of their lands, or otherwise drain the land to make it usable for agriculture. But the land has mostly not been modified to preclude holding water if it is directed there. And this can help with south Florida’s water woes.

Since 2005, the South Florida Water Management District has worked with landowners in the Kissimmee River basin and the Lake Okeechobee watershed in a Dispersed Water Management Program, where the landowner is compensated for not draining land, for receiving runoff from elsewhere, or both.[1] These usually are not full-time water storage agreements, but as-needed, based on rainfall and water levels. By contrast with hardened reservoirs, this dispersed water can recharge groundwater, can be settled and cleansed over time, and can nourish soils and vegetation on the landscape. Since many of the landowners are cattle ranchers, the land can be rotated in and out of active use as needed. For a fraction of the cost of large, constructed facilities to hold water, these arrangements can help address the problem of excess water and nutrients in Lake Okeechobee before the water reaches the lake.

Part of the benefit of these dispersed water storage programs is that they are cooperative agreements between landowners and government, so the landowner may opt out after the term of an agreement has run, and government need not buy land, removing it from agriculture and tax rolls altogether. And keeping the land in agriculture, while helping to keep agriculture profitable in the long run, keeps development pressures at bay in this part of Florida where the natural systems are so vital to the survival of the state we love. While cooperative dispersed water storage programs certainly aren’t a silver bullet to solving water quantity and quality issues in this area, they are an important tool in the toolbox.

 

About the Author:

Dennis G. Corrick is a shareholder in the Fort Pierce office of Dean Mead. He has extensive experience working with issues unique to agricultural businesses and properties. He is a member of Dean Mead’s Agribusiness and Real Estate Development Industry teams. He may be reached at (772) 464-7700 or by email at dcorrick@deanmead.com.

 

 

[1] For a fact sheet about this program, see http://www.sfwmd.gov/portal/page/portal/xrepository/sfwmd_repository_pdf/jtf_dispersed_water_mgmt.pdf