Jacksonville, Fla. – A very happy group celebrated the St. Johns River Upper Basin Project’s completion Aug. 23 in a ceremony that honored men and women who carried-out a four-decade long vision. Today, it’s hailed as one of the world’s largest wetland restoration works of its kind.
"The Upper Basin Project has breathed new life into the headwaters of the St. Johns River," said Dr. Ann Shortelle, St. Johns River Water Management District executive director. "Our predecessors at the district and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shared an ambitious, seemingly insurmountable vision. Today, we leave behind a legacy for future generations."
The St. Johns River, Florida’s longest river at 310 miles, starts in Indian River County and flows northerly up and through Duval County to the Atlantic Ocean. Its basin is more than 2,000-square-miles. The upper basin, or the headwaters of the river, once flourished with more than 400,000 acres of floodplain marsh. Florida agricultural and other interest groups diked and drained the upper basin in the early 1900s for agricultural purposes. Several decades later, however, the diversions caused the loss of more than 60 percent of the marsh and diminished water quality in the Indian River Lagoon.
A precursor to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in South Florida, the Corps of Engineers joined forces with the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) in 1977 to restore the river’s natural functions while still providing flood protection to thousands of people who lived and worked along the river.
Ahead of their time, the agencies conceived, designed and constructed a multifaceted project that restored the drained marshes, nearly eliminated freshwater discharges to the Indian River Lagoon, isolated agricultural runoff from the St. Johns River, and restored habitat for wildlife and fisheries.
Water management officials worked with local farmers and residents for decades to acquire the lands necessary for the project. They assured them that this would restore natural functions and help future generations. Convinced, local farmers and residents helped the project to move forward. The Corps and SJRWMD teamed up to design project features, and the Corps oversaw the building of the necessary infrastructure. Operation and maintenance lies with the SJRWMD.
Speakers at the celebration consistently highlighted that without the partnership and perseverance over four decades, they could never have built “nature back into the basin” system. The project is cited as a national model for floodplain management.
“Researching, modeling and analyzing – understanding the water basin and its various functions correctly even as we moved forward with a single project – was critical to the project’s overall success,” said Corps’ Hydraulic Engineer Chrissie Wiederhold. Providing flood and environmental protection, the 47,530-acre Three Forks Marsh Project was the 27th and final project completed in the Upper Basin. As the hydraulic engineering technical lead, Wiederhold worked on this project for the last six years.
Some, like SJRWMD’s Maurice Sterling, now retired, grew up near the river and worked on the Upper Basin project their entire careers. In 2009, Sterling shared the coveted Thiess Riverprize Award with the Corps of Engineers. Given by Australia’s University of Queensland, the project was internationally recognized for using innovative approaches in design and management to combine environmental benefits with flood damage reduction. Years after retirement, Sterling continues to educate and provide support to young team members such as Wiederhold.
"This project challenged hundreds of scientists, engineers, project managers and leaders to implement new, more natural approaches in a watershed-wide project that provides flood control, water quality improvements and marsh restoration," Col. Jason A. Kirk, commander of Jacksonville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Kirk said the success of the project shows what can be accomplished through shared commitment and focus over time. “The many individuals and organizations that cooperated on this project deserve to be very proud of bringing the project forward to this significant milestone. They have set the standard in working together to make tomorrow better," he said.
In July 2016 the upper basin project was also recognized as the “Project of the Century” by the Florida Society of Engineers, competing against such inventive projects as air conditioning and the Hubble Space Telescope. According to the engineering committee, the projects provided witness of engineering excellence.
For more information about the St. Johns River Upper Basin Project, visit http://www.sjrwmd.com/upperstjohnsriver.