JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Feb. 18, 2011) – The secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Ken Salazar, was among more than 130 people who celebrated the groundbreaking today of a new federal construction project to restore the Picayune Strand. Salazar is a strong supporter of Everglades restoration, and this marks at least his second visit to Florida within the last year or so to support the River of Grass.
Salazar was on hand for the groundbreaking ceremony for the start of the Faka Union Canal Pump Station Project, a component of the Picayune Strand Restoration Project, held today at 10 a.m. at the project site in Collier County. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), and other partners have come together on this $79 million project to build a pump station, remove roadway and continue canal plugging. It is one of three major federal construction projects to restore the Picayune Strand area.
Salazar was joined by U.S. Rep. David Rivera; Terrence C. “Rock” Salt, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army for civil works; and Eric Buermann, chair of the South Florida Water Management District. More than 100 members of the public and other agency leaders and staff also attended the event. The Army Junior ROTC unit from Palmetto Ridge High School presented the colors and Jacklyn Raulerson, Miss Florida 2010, sang the national anthem.
"Our partnership with the state of Florida, the Army Corps and many stakeholders to restore the 55,000-acre Picayune Strand is vital to this fragile ecosystem, and the work at Picayune Strand has significant benefits for the economy and quality of life in Florida," Salazar said. "From bridging the Tamiami Trail to the Site-1 Impoundment project our investments in Everglades restoration are investments in Florida's future in ensuring clean water for its citizens and for the environment. We are putting people back to work and restoring the River of Grass."
"With the start of construction on the Faka Union Canal Pump Station, our federal partners at the Corps are further building on the significant restoration progress that has already been made at the Picayune Strand," said SFWMD Governing Board Chair Eric Buermann. "This project provides an excellent example of the benefits that can be realized for south Florida's ecosystem through the cooperative efforts of the District, the state of Florida and the Corps."
“This project marks a major milestone in Everglades restoration,” said Col. Al Pantano, commander of the Jacksonville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “The Picayune Strand Restoration Project is the first Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan project under construction and Faka Union is the largest of the three federal construction contracts,” added Pantano, who is also speaking at the event.
The Picayune Strand Restoration Project is a collaborative effort of local, state and federal governments, and will restore an area that is considered an ecological jewel of southwest Florida.
The 55,000-acre project site was once slated to be a housing development. In the 1960s and early 1970s, 279 miles of roads and 48 miles of canals were built. The housing development failed. But these roads and four large canals have over-drained the area, resulting in the reduction of aquifer recharge, greatly increased freshwater point source discharges to the receiving estuaries to the south, invasion by upland vegetation, loss of ecological connectivity and associated habitat, and increased frequency of forest fires. In 1974, Collier County commissioned the first study to determine how to reverse the impacts of the failed housing development. In 1985, the state of Florida began purchasing the lots to allow for the area’s restoration. Congress authorized the Picayune Strand Restoration Project in 2007 as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). The South Florida Water Management District expedited construction by filling in and plugging seven miles of the Prairie Canal and completing approximately 25 percent of the road removal.
In January 2010, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District broke ground on the first of three federal construction contracts. The initial $53 million Merritt Canal Pump Station Project will build a pump station, remove 95 miles of roads and install 55 plugs in the Merritt Canal. This project is well under way today.
Today, the Corps of Engineers, SFWMD and other partners broke ground on the second major federal construction contract. The $79 million Faka Union Canal Pump Station Project will build a pump station, remove more roadway, and continue the canal plugging. The third federal construction contract will be awarded for the Miller Canal Pump Station in the future. When done, the project will feature three major pump stations, removal of 260 miles of roads and filling in of 48 miles of canals.
When complete, the Picayune Strand Restoration Project will restore natural water flows over an 85-square-mile area. The project will improve the area’s hydrology, allow for the return of more balanced plant communities, increase aquifer recharge, and send fresh water in a more natural manner to the coastal estuaries.
The project is critical to the survival of the endangered Florida panther. There are an estimated 100 to 160 adults left in the wild, with the only breeding population living in southwest Florida. The project will restore valuable panther habitat. It will also connect many public parks, refuges and preserves, to allow an uninterrupted wilderness corridor for the panther – essential as the panther requires a large territory.
The groundbreaking ceremony took place Feb. 18 at 10 a.m. at the project site.