Technological wizardry in the mighty St. Johns River helps protect area residents from flooding

Wide Canal

Canals and flood control structures in the headwaters of the St. Johns River are used to help manage water levels in the region. This waterway, Canal 54, is part of the system, but used only for emergency discharges.

By Ed Garland

From a bird’s eye view — and there are plenty of birds out here — the headwaters of the St. Johns River unfold as a vast embroidery of placid open marshes, impenetrable hardwood swamps and shimmering rectangular constructs engineered to store vast amounts of water. What may be most remarkable, however, is this seemingly remote sultry wilderness is surrounded by a population of about three-quarters of a million people in Brevard and Indian River counties.

That speck at ground level is John Richmond, a senior professional engineer with the St. Johns River Water Management District. He stands at a water control gate with his smart phone in hand. Richmond literally has his thumb on the pulse of the Upper St. Johns River Basin’s veins and arteries: a geometry of canals, water storage areas and water control structures that comprise one of the largest flood control and marsh restoration projects in the world.

This particular water control structure, a concrete-and-steel monolith called S-96D, is situated at the south end of the 6,500-acre St. Johns Water Management Area, known by local anglers as the “Stick Marsh.” Seasoned fishing guides favor this corner of the Stick Marsh because the water flowing through D-96D tends to be a fish magnet.

Richmond taps at the screen of his phone and the technological “magic” begins.

Richmond at structure facility

District Senior Engineer John Richmond uses his cell phone to adjust the water control structure at S-96D. The structure is part of the Upper St. Johns River Basin Project at the Indian River/Brevard county line.

Gate structure

Water flows through water control structure S-96D, part of the Upper St. Johns River Basin.

 

“The gate is following the commands I give on the phone to raise the gate 0.5 feet as a test,” Richmond says. The gate cables hum softly as the gate creeps upward. “Now, I’m telling it to go back to zero…and it’s closing itself all from the operation of the data logger inside of the building and the commands I’m giving the system using the phone.”

Richmond’s simple demonstration isn’t a slick parlor trick. It’s a seismic shift in the technology the agency now uses to shuffle billions of gallons of water throughout the 200,000-acre Upper St. Johns River Basin Project. A major software upgrade completed in spring 2019 ensures the district will continue to carry out one of its most important missions — providing flood protection to a sizeable portion of Florida’s east-central coast — while ensuring the safety of district staff during drenching rains and hurricanes.

“We’re ready for the hurricane season of 2019,” Richmond says. “In the old days, we had to send a dozen or more people out here to open and close water control gates to prevent flooding. Now we can do it through an improved software system that allows us to operate structures through telemetry and avoid sending staff out into potentially dangerous weather.”

Person tapping a phone

District staff use a weather app to monitor conditions in the headwaters region of the St. Johns River to determine if flood control gates should be adjusted. Another app allows them to remotely make adjustments to major flood control structures using a smartphone or other device.

Richmond says the historic hurricane season of 2004 prompted the agency to investigate the benefits of remote operation to ensure the safety of employees charged with driving out to the various water control structures each time they needed to be tweaked open or shut.

“South Florida (Water Management District) had already been using remote control, so we followed suit and used the same contractors and equipment to modernize our operations,” he recalls. “Technology changes and we needed to upgrade our equipment and I must say we are light-years ahead now. Our staff can operate the gates remotely from Palm Bay, our headquarters in Palatka or anywhere from a smart phone. It can even be programmed to operate by itself.”

That’s a far cry from the headwaters’ hydrology in the early 20th century when agricultural interests reconfigured and drained the marsh with steam shovels to create farmlands. But there was a price to pay for these alterations. Hurricanes devastated the region in the 1920s and 1940s, prompting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to build a flood control basin in the 1950s. The project included a network of canals to drain floodwaters to the Indian River Lagoon.

The sticking point with the flood control project was the C-54 canal, completed in 1973. C-54 was designed to divert up to 6,000 cubic feet per second of water from the St. Johns River to the Indian River Lagoon, which was determined to cause big swings in the lagoon’s salinity, impacting fish and wildlife resources. Construction of the federal flood control project was halted in 1973 by President Richard Nixon.

The district took over the project in 1977 and worked with USACE to redesign and build what is today’s Upper St. Johns River Basin Project. The results: a revitalized river through reclaiming drained marshlands, plugging canals, building reservoirs and mimicking nature by storing water in restored marshes rather than purging it to the lagoon.

“We are focused on our mission to protect residents from flooding, especially during hurricane season,” says St. Johns River Water Management District Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle. “We are charged with operating and maintaining this cutting-edge flood control project. Our new software enables us to manage the movement of the river’s headwaters safely and efficiently.”

The upper basin project has proven itself several times, most memorably during the drenching rains of Tropical Storm Fay in 2008. During Hurricane Mathew in 2016, the project again performed flawlessly, never allowing water levels to reach maximum elevations at any time. Under maximum storm conditions, the project is designed to hold 500,000 acre-feet of water — enough water to cover the 200,000-acre project with an average of 2.5 feet of water.

As with each pending hurricane season, dozens of forecasts will be issued throughout spring and summer from various government, private and academic sources. Early forecasts of hurricane season are the most difficult, which is why many organizations issue multiple forecasts as the season gets closer and make additional forecasts before it peaks in August and September.

Regardless of the actual activity that occurs during this year’s hurricane season — which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30 — the upper basin project will do its job, efficiently and effectively, using the latest technology to protecting the public from flooding.