Cleaning Florida’s Water and Restoring Wetlands

Florida district shifts its approach to stormwater management and water conservation.
Cleaning Florida’s Water and Restoring Wetlands
Environmental scientists Shane Overstreet (left) and Paul Ek collect water samples from the Wekiva River for lab testing.

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Times have certainly changed when it comes to stormwater management in the Sunshine State.

“Back in the day,” says Dr. Ann Shortelle, executive director of the St. Johns River Water Management District, “the idea was to get as much water as possible off the land and into the ocean. It was ditch and drain.”

Now, however, with Florida the third most popu-lous state in the country and facing a growing concern about water supply and water quality in the future, the emphasis is exactly the opposite.

“We’ve spent a couple of decades trying to reverse that trend,” Shortelle says. “The old policies dried out our wetlands and took water away from the St. Johns River. Now we are bringing water back onto the land, rehydrating and restoring wetlands, and cleaning the water.”

To that end, the St. Johns District implements its own water projects, while also sharing costs with municipal utilities in the district in support of local efforts to conserve water, capture stormwater, recharge the aquifer and protect water quality.

“We plan to do even more,” Shortelle says, referring to the district’s water projects. “There are so many really important benefits.”

The district

Headquartered in Palatka, the St. Johns River Water Management District is one of five water districts created by state legislation in 1972 to manage surface water and groundwater throughout the state. The district serves all or portions of 18 counties, stretching from the Jacksonville area in the north, down the coast to Vero Beach, and inland to Gainesville and Ocala. The area encompasses over 12,000 square miles.

All districts have a common four-part mission to protect water quality, manage water supply, control flooding and preserve natural systems. The districts are funded through an ad valorem tax, as well as numerous grants. The annual budget for SJRWMD is about $150 million, with a staff of 600.

In addition to water management projects, the district has a permitting role, and owns and manages hundreds of thousands of acres of land — some for natural flood control, others for recreation and public use.

“Unlike many other states,” Shortelle says, “Florida is heavily dependent on groundwater. We are very mindful of water recharge — either in underground reservoirs or on the surface.”

There’s also a big emphasis on water conservation (see sidebar), nutrient removal, and capturing stormwater runoff for blending and reuse.

Water supply planning

Despite the presence of the Floridan aquifer — one of the world’s most productive aquifers — and annual rainfall amounts that put Florida among the nation’s wettest states, it’s imperative that Florida plans for adequate water supplies in the next 25 to 50 years and beyond, especially as population and development continue to increase.

In the St. Johns District, the task of water supply planning falls to Mike Register and his staff. Register, division director for water supply planning, says his group’s primary task is to look ahead 20 years and project both water supply and water needs.

“We evaluate the water demand in the area and then determine sources that are able to meet the demand,” Register says.

Within the St. Johns District, water supply plans are drawn up and periodically updated for the northern portion, the central portion and area along the east coast. The projections are made based on prior water use, population projections, and estimates for water conservation and water reclamation and reuse. “We estimate the amount of groundwater that will be pumped from the aquifer, then identify alternative sources such as surface water, beneficial reuse and stormwater harvesting,” he says.

Register says his group develops a suite of options that individual utilities can chose from, then monitors the progress toward the plan that utilities are making, updating the plan every five years. “Municipalities can pick from the options we’ve identified, and then make their capital projects and budget plans,” Register explains. “They can meet their needs in the most cost-efficient way.”

Conservation, Register says, is the most desirable alternative because it does not require large capital outlays. Desalination is another possibility, but is not really feasible and is expensive, Register says. Drilling deeper into the lower Floridan aquifer would produce water of lesser quality.

Harvesting stormwater is another major challenge, because — as Register explains — you often don’t get the rainfall when you need it. “The question we ask is ‘How can we build enough storage?’ Do we treat and inject, build rapid infiltration basins, combine with reclaim, store in regional treatment facilities?”

Controlling floods

Floodwater not only damages property, it represents a lost opportunity as the water swirls away downstream.

Controlling floods and capturing floodwater is one of the St. Johns District’s most important efforts to ensure adequate water supplies in the years ahead.

Woody Boynton is chief of the district’s bureau of operations and maintenance, a team responsible for overall operation of the district’s flood control and levee systems. He says the objective of the district’s 50 to 75 gates, over 100 miles of levees and numerous pumping stations is to enhance water supply, water quality and natural systems whenever possible. An additional benefit is to direct stormwater back into the St. Johns River and prevent it from escaping to the ocean. Boynton’s team concentrates on maintenance and monitoring.

“Most of our infrastructure is old — dating to the 1950s and 60s,” he says. “Maintenance is an important aspect of what we do.”

The district has embarked on a 10-year rehabilitation plan, rebuilding the entire system.

Another priority is regulating and monitoring. “We monitor 16 bodies of water and 12 major flood control systems,” Boynton says. The district uses telemetry to monitor water levels and control the opening and closing of gates. “When we get 10 to 12 inches of rain, things can get pretty hectic.”

Another district focus is returning former agricultural lands to natural areas that can absorb stormwater. Boynton says the district has spent close to $100 million in property acquisition in recent years, and points to the Fellsmere Water Management Area as an example. Fellsmere is an Upper Basin project consisting of 10,000 acres of restored wetlands at the headwaters of the St. Johns River. Formerly crop and pasture land, the area will now become the primary source for irrigation of the remaining farmland. The area will also reduce nutrients and freshwater input to the estuary by redirecting flows away from it and into the river.

In most of these areas, the district uses extended retention and natural treatment to take up pollutants through vegetation. In a few cases, chemical treatment removes pollutants before the water enters the receiving stream.

“The western states might laugh at why we’re concerned about water,” says executive director Shortelle. “But most of our rainwater has gone out to sea (in the past). Florida is unique in that it is primarily dependent on groundwater for potable water.”

She is excited at the prospect of building water storage both “beneath our feet” and in surface reservoirs. “We have to remind our citizens that water is a state resource for the public good,” she says. “We need to be careful and use only what we need. These are not the days of dig and drain. We need to get back to a better balance of water storage for people and for the environment.


Stormwater park in south Brevard County

The Wheeler Stormwater Park in south Brevard County will be yet another step toward protecting water quality in the St. Johns River Water Management District.

The new park, to be completed later this year, converts land formerly used for farming into a 300-acre site consisting of settling ponds, restored wetlands and newly planted trees. The park will reduce pollutants that formerly ran off agricultural lands and a mobile home park. The runoff entered the Sottile Canal, which flows into the St. Sebastian River and ultimately the Indian River Lagoon.

The project is a prime example of how the St. Johns River District partners with other agencies; funding participants include the Florida DOT, DEP and Brevard County.



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