February 10, 2017
Two tides: Fight for fresh water in the Picayune
By David Hodges
COLLIER COUNTY, FL -
If you’re not an expert, it’s hard to tell what belongs and what doesn’t in a Florida wetland. But biologists and environmental scientists like what they see so far in Picayune Strand State Forest.
“Now I can see that we're actually doing restoration,” Conservancy of Southwest Florida Environmental Science Director Kathy Worley said.
Worley took our NBC2 crew deep into the Picayune Strand, formerly the failed Southern Golden Gate Estates development, to show us some of the progress of the Picayune Strand Restoration Project.
“What you'll have more is a naturally vegetative area that can support more wetlands whereas before it couldn't,” Worley said.
To build the subdivision, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed four large canals to drain the wetlands and keep the water from spilling over the land. As part of the restoration project, the Corps has now plugged two of those canals and is building pump stations farther north to spread the water out and keep other developments from flooding.
The goal is to make Picayune closer resemble neighboring park Fakahatchee Strand Preserve to its east.
But at the southern edge of the forest, plant ecologist Michael Barry is tracking something else that’s worrying him.
Barry hacked his way through thick brush to show us a new wave of dying pine trees that once thrived in the wetlands. He’s been monitoring them for years and says each time he visits, more are dead.
“They've just all died from increased salinities,” Barry said.
Barry says the pines can’t take the salt water that floods the area during high tides.
“Every dry season I can count on coming here and seeing a new wave of dead trees. That's too fast."
Barry says the problem is sea level rise. As proof, he and Worley showed us the northern progression of mangrove tress thriving on higher salinities where other trees succumb.
Elevation maps of Collier County show that with 25 cm of sea level rise much of the Ten Thousand Islands and East Naples would be underwater killing even more pines.
But Barry’s concern extends beyond what’s above the surface to what’s underneath – fresh water aquifers. Since the Picayune was drained, Barry says more of the surficial aquifer has become brackish.
“Fresh water, we've got to hold on to fresh water,” Barry said.
The Army Corps of Engineers has stated recharging the aquifer and reducing brackish water as one of its top priorities of the restoration project.
“This project should help to reduce the extent of brackish water within the project area,” Gina Paduano Ralph with the Army Corps said.
“We have lots of people in Southwest Florida and so by restoring these ecosystems and allowing ground water or aquifer recharge, you are actually providing long-term water supply benefits.”
Currently, the South Florida Water Management District has slated any of the water underneath the Picayune to be used only for Everglades restoration, meaning human consumption is a no go.
But hydrologist Mike Duever says restoring the Picayune will help protect aquifers to the north, used by Golden Gate Estates, and the east, used by Everglades City.
He says with the Picayune parched, water in aquifers to the north drain quicker.
“When you increase the downstream gradient by draining the area, water moves out faster,” Duever said.
He says his studies found the canals in the Picayune can drain water from the Fakahatchee Preserve several miles to its east, essentially taking away water from the aquifer.
Additionally, he says restoring Picayune to a wetland will help protect against forest fires.
“The restoration of the water table would translate into fire protection benefits for the populated upstream areas,” Duever said.
Barry believes some of the Picayune is beyond restoration. He calls a new wave of dying pines “the living dead.”
But he believes its importance beneath the surface cannot be understated.
“This is the biggest thing that we've done for our future here in South Florida,” Barry said.