Palm Beach Post News
October 6, 2017
Water farm on Ex-Citrus Grove Reduces Lake O Discharges into Estuaries
By Susan Salisbury
For decades, thousands of orange trees thrived at Caulkins Citrus Company’s 3,200-acre grove in Palm City, producing a bountiful crop each year. But now another “crop” is being harvested — polluted water from Lake Okeechobee.
The practice is being touted as part of the solution to Lake O discharges that have resulted in damaging blue-green algal blooms in the St. Lucie Estuary to the east and the Caloosahatchee River to the west.
On Tuesday, the Martin County water farm’s expansion from a 413-acre pilot project to a 2-mile by 3-mile reservoir that stores dirty water from the C-44 Canal linked to Lake O was celebrated with a ribbon-cutting event attended by more than 100 people. The goal is to store up to 35 billion gallons of water every year to keep the dirty water from heading to fragile estuaries, rivers and the coast, causing fish kills and harming marine and tourism industries.
Even George Caulkins III, the company’s president, admits that water farming can be a difficult concept.
“We heard about this program that the South Florida Water Management District was thinking about, this thing called water farming — kind of a crazy term. I don’t know if anybody else has as much trouble describing it as I do. You can’t really farm water unless you grow shrimp in it or something,” Caulkins said at the site Tuesday.
“For 50 years this has been a flourishing, terrific ag property, a citrus grove, but like many others growers, certainly all the commercial growers in Martin County, we were hit by citrus greening and lost all of our trees,” said Caulkins, whose father planted the trees in the 1960s.
Now, he said, the property has a different goal.
“We found a way to re-purpose this land … and figure out a way to take lemons and make lemonade, for the citizens of Martin County and the St. Lucie Estuary and the coast,” Caulkins said. “We are happy to be part of the solution.”
The land had been slated to be developed into ranchettes — single-family homes on 20-acre lots.
Caulkins’ company worked in a private/public partnership with the SFWMD, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Florida Senate President Joe Negron.
The expansion’s construction cost $7.5 million, and Caulkins is being paid $5.5 million a year under a 10-year agreement. It’s not a lease; it’s for a service provided, said Ansley Marr, the water management district’s section administrator for the Northern Everglades.
While water farming has been done in other places, Marr said that in terms of scale, the SFWMD is at the forefront.
While the the water management district has paid ranchers north of the lake for years to store water on their properties, water farms are a newer concept and involve the use of pumps and the creation of reservoirs. The water farms are an interim solution until other long-term projects come online.
The Caulkins water farm pilot project, which launched in 2014 with the 16-county water management district, was the first project of its kind in the state to be operational. The project exceeded expectations, storing more than four times the amount of water expected.
Two other South Florida water farm pilot projects were launched in 2015, and another six are in the works.
In what’s known as the “lost summer” of 2013, 136 billion gallons of nutrient-laden Lake O water spilled into the St. Lucie River, causing a massive blue-green algal bloom. Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Martin, St. Lucie, Palm Beach and Lee counties.
The bloom, which also spread to the Indian River Lagoon estuary and west to the Caloosahatchee River, grew to 200 square miles on Lake O. The water was released to ease pressure on Lake O’s 143-mile earthen levee. If the water farm had been up and running, it could have reduced the amount of water going into the estuary by 25 percent, Caulkins said.
When two other projects along the C-43 and C-44 canals are completed, storage capacity will expand. The plan is for the Caulkins reservoir to store the water and never discharge under normal conditions. About 18 percent evaporates, and 82 percent remains in the 10-foot deep reservoir surrounded by a 17-mile man-made berm. Construction took nine months.
“We can pump 150 million gallons a day. We can fill up an Olympic-sized swimming pool in about five minutes,” Caulkins said.
Doug Bournique, executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League, now based in Fort Pierce, said water farming has been a godsend for the greening-devastated citrus industry. Greening, spread by the tiny Asian citrus psyllid, is a bacterial disease that causes trees to produce bitter, misshapen fruit and eventually kills the trees. No cure has been found.
In the late 1990s to early 2000s, the region from central Palm Beach County to Volusia County held 240,000 acres of citrus. Now that’s down to 70,000 acres.
In Martin County, the groves have become scruffy, abandoned remnants of their former use of producing one of the highest-value crops in Florida, oranges and grapefruit. Some former groves have been converted to other types of farms, growing vegetables, sugar cane, herbs or landscape plants, but those crops are not as profitable, Bournique said.
“My last grower in Martin County, Becker, sold his grove near the intersection of I-95 at Hobe Sound to Michael Jordan a year ago for a golf course,” Bournique said.
Bournique, who also serves on the governing board of the St. Johns River Water Management District, said he was driving back from a water district meeting in South Florida about 10 years ago when he wondered if the grove lands might be able to play a role in water storage.
“I thought, you know we can help the Indian River Lagoon. We have people sitting on hold not knowing what to do with their land. There is no good Plan B, no other crops that make money on these soils like Indian River red grapefruit,” Bournique said. “We have tested a lot of crops, but nothing made money.
“My growers at first thought it was b.s. They said, ‘I don’t want to put my land underwater,’” Bournique said. “‘What if they find a new variety that doesn’t get greening?’” We’ve had greening for 13 years, and there is no silver bullet yet. More growers are interested now.”
The pilot projects have proved that the concept works, Bournique said.
“It holds a lot of water and keeps billions of gallons out of the Indian River Lagoon and keeps the land in families that have held it for generations and keeps housing out. The area gets hydrated, and the water gets cleaner,” Bournique said.
But water storage doesn’t work for every property. The land must be near a canal that drains from the lake, and it has to have the right kind of soil.
The 150-foot deep white sand at Caulkins is ideal. The water percolates through the sand into the aquifer. At the same time, at least 75 percent of the phosphorus and 50 percent of the nitrogen are being removed from the water pumped onto the farm.
Florida Senate President Negron, R-Palm City said, “This successful project demonstrates that Florida can achieve short term solutions to reduce discharges while at the same time building the long-term water storage infrastructure to solve the problem once and for all.
Department of Environmental Protection Secrtary Noah Valenstein said the water farm’s storage will complement the C-44 Canal and other Everglades restoration projects.
“DEP is proud to be a partner in this project, and remains committed to enhancing water storage and improving water quality in Florida’s treasured Everglades,” Valenstein said.
The ribbon cutting for the Caulkins Water Farm project celebrated the expansion of a project in Martin County as part of a Water Farming Pilot Project program which began in 2013 in the St. Lucie Watershed under State of Florida Department of Environmental Protection matching funds Grant.
The $4.2 million pilot program included Caulkins Citrus project, which became operational Feb. 1, 2014 ; Spur Land & Cattle/Bull Hammock Ranch, which became operational January 2015 , and Evans Properties’ Evans Ideal 1000, which became operational May 2015.
In 2016 the State of Florida DEP identified six large scale projects capable of providing interim storage to bridge the gap between the existing conditions and the implementation of larger more permanent storage solutions within the region. The state legislature appropriated $47 million for construction of these water farms on lands across the Northern Everglades under the Northern Everglades Public Private Partnership Program.
NEPPP Projects and their anticipated average annual storage capacity
Caulkins Water Farm (St. Lucie River Estuary Watershed) 35 billion gallons (Caulkins estimate)
Bluefield Grove (St. Lucie River Estuary Watershed): 11 billion gallons
Scott Water Farm (Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie River Estuary Watershed): 11.4 billion gallons
Alico Dispersed Water Storage (Caloosahatchee River Watershed): 29 billion gallons
Brighton Valley (Lake Okeechobee Watershed): 11 billion gallons
Latt Maxcy (Lake Okeechobee Watershed): 8.7 billion gallons
Benefits of performing these projects include:
-Increased water retention and storage in Lake Okeechobee and estuaries watersheds
-Reduced nutrient loadings
-Increased groundwater recharge
-Higher soil moisture in dry season
Source: South Florida Water Management District