Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart and members of the Senate budget committee who approved spending $7.5 million for Caulkins Water Farm on Wednesday did the right thing.
True, $7.5 million is a lot of money to "find." But water storage areas in the 16-county South Florida Water Management District are full. There's no more room in the inn -- with more rain, more storms predicted while El Nino is in full force.
I think this is a good time to remind you what Caulkins Water Farm is -- how good it is.
Caulkins was a water-storage pilot program. In 2012 SFWMD, with a matching $1.5 million grant from DEP, published a request for proposals for such projects. Three farms were selected a year later, just as raging rains were causing unrelenting discharges from both Lake Okeechobee and the local drainage basin. Caulkins was the largest of them.
The project stunned SFWMD engineers almost immediately by exceeding expectations, by storing more than double the amount of water expected.
Of the two pilot projects in Martin County and one in St. Lucie County, the 3,200-acre Caulkins near Indiantown was the first in the state to be operational. It took only 16 months to be built. Any other that size would have taken years.
Other Dispersed Water Management Projects, as they're called, plug ditches to retain stormwater runoff. The Caulkins project instead pumps billions of gallons of water from the C-44 canal onto the Caulkins site, now a shallow-water reservoir. Treasure Coast journalist Barbara Clowdus described it as looking like "a slice of the Everglades, with alligators swimming among hyacinths toward a flock of baby gallinules, with an eagle overhead and stilted herons picking at the shoreline."
But funding for the program has ended.
This is not a project the state can let go. It holds the promise of relief to the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon estuaries from annual deluges of polluted water -- up to half of the water storage needed to reduce annual discharges by 90 percent.
As Clowdus described last summer in a column in Sunshine State News, Caulkins is in the perfect spot -- along Citrus Boulevard next to the C-44 canal.
It was considered an ideal location to test the concept of water farming early in the Dispersed Water Management Program, which began in 2006, when the SFWMD began paying ranchers to hold stormwater on their lands, rather than drain them.
It's an even more ideal location today from the state's point of view -- actually from any point of view. The infrastructure is in place. Water pumps and canals throughout the property dramatically reduce the upfront construction cost of building anything else. Until the Caulkins project, no other true “water farms” were part of the district’s Dispersed Water Management Program anywhere in the state.
In addition to storage, the water farm will also cleanse billions of gallons of water while recharging the aquifer, capturing about 75 percent of the phosphorous and 50 percent of the nitrogen that otherwise would foul Martin County's estuaries.
Caulkins -- a vast and prosperous orange grove pre-citrus greening -- is enclosed entirely by a 7-foot levee built with the spoil from a newly dug canal. It provides a total of 413 acres of permeable land to treat polluted water from the C-44 and to capture the 55 inches of annual rainfall.
All kinds of scientists and engineers have vetted this project.
“The most abused resource we have is time,” Kevin Powers, vice chairman of the SFWMD Governing Board told Clowdus, “and for whatever reasons, federal projects take a long time ... but these (water farms) are deliverables that we can count on now. ...”
Even an expanded Caulkins Water Farm, plus the two additional water farms on the C-43 and C-44 canals currently under construction will not handle hurricanes or major rains, such as the 136 billion gallons of water going to tide in 2013, Powers conceded. But they could meet and exceed the additional storage required to end the regular, annual discharges to the St. Lucie River while the full range of 68 Everglades restoration projects is completed.
How to find $7.5 million? A legitimate concern, certainly. But the six members of the Senate Appropriations Committee who opposed the expenditure Wednesday should consider the kind of strain put on the Water Management District's flood control system during a prolonged rain event, as the area suffered in January.
Sure as the sun rises in the East, there will be another one.
Even with the objections, the measure passed 11-6. It's probably unrealistic, but I'm hoping the quality of this project will motivate Senate Appropriations dissenters Tom Lee, R-Brandon; Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton; David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs; Alan Hays, R-Umatilla; Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater; and Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah to take another, creative look at the budget and make a place for this one.
Much of the information in the commentary was provided by Barbara Clowdus, editor and publisher of Martin County Currents. Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423.