The Palm Beach Post

State officials tout deals to store and cleanse acres of water by flooding ranchland


Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

November 29, 2011


Florida's top environmental officials signed contracts with eight ranchers on Tuesday to store water on vast swaths of soggy pastures, as part of a simple project that officials said would require no costly land purchases, construction or complex engineering.

"What a win-win for the state of Florida," said Herschel Vinyard, the secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Vinyard, who attended the ceremonial signing in a cow pasture north of Lake Okeechobee, praised the project as a common-sense approach to water storage. "We hope to bring this kind of innovation around the state."

For decades, water storage projects throughout lands that were once part of the Everglades have focused on building reservoirs and other structures to control the flow of water. The South Florida Water Management District has a particularly challenged record, having spent $300 million on a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that was later abandoned, and $250 million on a reservoir in western Palm Beach County with water so salty and polluted that it cannot be used.

Under the new contracts, the district will pay ranchers as much as $150 per acre-foot of water they store on their land over the next 10 years. An acre-foot is the amount of water 1 foot deep that would cover an acre of land.

The contracts total $7 million and the district hopes to spend another $46 million over the next five years to expand the program, said Melissa Meeker, the executive director of the water district.

The contracts increase storage on 9,500 acres north of Lake Okeechobee. The ultimate goal is to provide 450,000 acre-feet of storage throughout the Northern Everglades -- about as much as one foot of water covering Lake Okeechobee, Meeker said.

While the water storage project unveiled on Tuesday is on a much smaller scale than a reservoir and will not provide drinking water, it is cheap, immediate and will provide widespread environmental relief, Meeker said. Storing water on the ranchlands will reduce the amount of polluted water flowing into Lake Okeechobee during the wet season, she added.

The additional storage will also reduce the amount of tainted farm water released into coastal estuaries and will recharge shallow groundwater water supplies, she said. Natural wetlands will benefit from a consistent water supply and nutrients will be slowly filtered from the water, she added.

Rather than rely on costly engineering and modelling, the program relies upon the ranchers' knowledge of their own land. Instead of massive structures, gates and pumps the ranchers will build their own ditches and canals to move water to lowlands on their land. Simple culverts, some just a few feet in diameter, fitted with panels of wood, will control the flow of water.

Rancher Jim Alderman said his family's ranch will use two culverts to retain water at higher levels in 322 acres in two natural wetlands. "People who live on the land know where the water collects and how it runs," he said.