Understanding the value of water
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In this issue
Massive restoration of headwaters of the St. Johns River is completed.
Cost-share program helps farmers innovate and conserve water.
2016 marks a decade of work in the St. Johns River’s lower basin.
Blue Cypress Conservation Area is in the district’s Upper St. Johns River Basin.
It's a wrap: Upper St. Johns River Basin Project completed
District will continue to actively manage and maintain project area
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan was still in the White House, the NBA named Michael Jordan as the “Rookie of the Year,” and a cadre of famous artists recorded the song “We Are The World” to raise money for famine relief in Africa. In central Florida, the St. Johns River Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) were laying out plans to embark on one of the largest flood protection and wetlands restoration projects in the world.
The Upper St. Johns River Basin Project was a monumental undertaking. The goal: protect Brevard and Indian River counties from flooding by restoring more than 160,000 acres of marshes at the headwaters of the St. Johns River.
In the early 1900s, the river’s headwaters were drained with ditches and dikes for agricultural pursuits. Draining the marshes exposed rich soils suitable for growing citrus and row crops and raising cattle for beefsteak. Although agriculture flourished, the river’s headwaters were vastly diminished.
Now, more than three decades and $250 million later, the Corps has wrapped up the last major component of the upper basin project, a reconfiguration of levees that will allow water to flow into the 13,737-acre Three Forks Marsh Conservation Area.
“The completion of the Upper St. Johns River Basin Project is a momentous occasion for the district, the Corps and the people of Florida,” says district Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle. “The headwaters of this storied river — named one of 14 American Heritage Rivers in 1998 — is reborn, thanks to careful planning and the collaborative vision of predecessors and current staff at the district and the Corps.”
“The headwaters of this storied river — named one of 14 American Heritage Rivers in 1998 — is reborn, thanks to careful planning and the collaborative vision of predecessors and current staff at the district and the Corps.”
— District Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle
Four decades ago, the marshes of the St. Johns River were in peril. In the early 1970s an earlier federal flood protection project shunted excess water from the St. Johns River to the Indian River Lagoon. But there was an unintended consequence: impacts to the lagoon’s estuarine waters included decreases in fish, shellfish and wildlife populations.
Meanwhile, little of the original marsh remained. Originally, the upper basin contained more than 400,000 acres of floodplain marsh. By the 1970s, 62 percent of the marsh in the river’s headwaters had been drained, the remainder further degraded by hydrologic alterations and nutrients in agricultural runoff.
In 1977, the district took over the project area and designed an innovative plan with the Corps to revitalize the river’s flow by restoring drained marshlands, plugging canals and building water conservation and water management areas.
District scientists each spring monitor and count apple snail eggs in the marshes of the upper St. Johns River. The eggs and the snails that hatch are important to the survival of the endangered snail kites.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the upper basin project is its mimicry of nature and minimal reliance on water control structures. Agricultural discharges are isolated from the river. Instead, water from citrus groves and livestock pastures is diverted to water management areas that can be used for farm irrigation and freeze protection.
After a trio of hard freezes barreled through Florida in December 2010, district Governing Board member Doug Bournique flew over Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties to survey freeze damage to citrus groves. The damage south of Indian River County was apparent, but Indian River County looked like a “Garden of Eden” by comparison, he recalls.
“The water in the upper basin made the difference,” says Bournique, executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League. “The upper basin project has saved hundreds of jobs and protected the agricultural base here.”
The project has benefitted fish, birds and wildlife as well.
“The district’s mantra for the upper basin project has always been that we are working with nature instead of against her,” Shortelle says. “The marshes are thriving with fish and wildlife, including endangered species such as the Everglades snail kite and the wood stork.”
The completion of the Three Forks project is the capstone to a long and winding path to finish a project that has rehydrated a 250-square-mile footprint in Florida’s marshy hinterlands. Water has already filled the Lake Lawton Recreation Area, a 7,000-acre lake and park within Three Forks, west of the city of Palm Bay.
And while the Corps’ construction portion of the project is considered complete, the district continues to enhance and build upon the great successes of the upper basin project with additional projects that extend the reach and benefits of the original project.