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Nancy Smith

From Citrus to Savior: Caulkins Water Farm to Celebrate Rebirth

September 30, 2017 - 12:00pm

Not many people who witness the death of something as personal and iconic as Caulkins' orange grove was during the last century, actually get to see it reborn in a profoundly significant way during the next century.

George Caulkins III is one of the few who will.

The president of Caulkins Citrus Co., whose grove suffered a slow and painful death by citrus greening, will experience that rebirth formally on Tuesday when he and his public partners celebrate a new beginning at Caulkins Water Farm.

The water farm is a big deal generally -- but especially for Martin County folks. It holds the promise of relief to the St. Lucie River and Indian River estuaries from deluges of polluted water -- up to half of the water storage needed to reduce annual Lake Okeechobee discharges by 90 percent.

As a pilot project started in 2013, the farm along Citrus Boulevard in western Martin County was 413 acres. The expansion to 3,200 acres now will allow an annual 35 billion gallons of water to be stored and treated on site.

Caulkins, 52, admits he's excited about showing off the project. 

"There's no other water storage like ours," he told me. "We're 500 yards from the center of the C-44, and we sit on about 150 feet of white sand."

The 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. 

Eva Velez, who oversees Everglades restoration, including the water storage sites, for the South Florida Water Management District, said she shares Caulkins' enthusiasm. "A lot of water can be pumped onto the property for the size of its footprint. That's why this water farm is so special -- the water goes downward faster than it goes sideways."

Said Caulkins, "With the kind of geology we've got, we may never have to turn off the pumps."

Everything seems a perfect fit for Caulkins and his two partners, the Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. During the 2016 legislative session, with the support of Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, state lawmakers allocated $7.5 million for the water farm's expansion. Construction began in January 2017 and here it is now, ready to go in the same year, a tribute to Caulkins' preparation.

The biggest single expense, he estimated, was $3 million for a pump station near the C-44 to accommodate three 35,000-gallon-per-minute pumps.

Most of the focus in restoration planning has been on long-term solutions, leaving the estuaries at the mercy of incessant, polluted stormwater drainage and Lake Okeechobee discharges. That's why SFWMD Executive Director Ernie Marks calls water farms "pieces in the puzzle."

"We see Caulkins and all our water farms as pieces in the puzzle, as a bridge, because we know it will take us a long time to complete the full complement of projects" to replumb the Everglades, said Marks.

He explained that water farm "contracts for environmental services" run for 10 years, with a year for design on the front end, and a year on the back end "for reversion." And all the while, the property remains on the tax rolls.

"This partnership is a very good deal for us. They do the heavy lifting -- the designing and the construction. We just provide technical assistance.

"We don't close any doors" on contract extensions, Marks said. "The keys to this are performance and legislative funding."

Tuesday's ceremony/press conference will include Caulkins, Negron, Marks, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein and Martin County Commission Chairman Doug Smith. It will start at 10 a.m. at the water farm site, 14100-15484 SW Citrus Blvd., Palm City. 

"I wanted to be dramatic," Caulkins told me. "I wanted to flip a switch so the pumps would all turn on, but the hurricane messed with our schedule."

He said a lot of the credit for the project's success goes to his three team members: Tom Kenny, project manager; Ronnie Hataway, farm manager; and Melissa Corbett, project engineer. "I want to recognize them Tuesday. And I want to thank some of our partners' staff, in particular Boyd Gunsalus, Eva Velez, Ansley Marr and Ernie Marks.

Caulkins tells a story that pretty much sums up his confidence in the land he owns: 

“When he first bought land in Martin County, my father was told the soil was too sandy here to grow oranges. But after a hurricane wiped out all their groves up on the ridge, he said sandy soil had saved him. After I took over, he reminded me again: 'Son, this sandy soil will save you.'” 

Now, look. What helped save an orange grove and a family business years ago likely will help save an estuary, too. A true rebirth.

Reach Nancy Smith at  nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

Comments

This is one of the biggest waste of money I have seen. Lets start by saying yes it is nice to hold the water but what does it really do? The water is still being dumped so lets says by them holding the water they can shut the locks a couple of days sooner. Is this really worth the money we are spending when the water is still being dumped, and you may have only saved an extra day or two of dumping? This is the good old boy system at its best it is a waste of money as the problem still exists. Fixed the problem at the root/lake and stop wasting taxpayer money on pipe dreams.

As the project surveyor for the Caukins Family for many years I am excited to see this property return to a productive element for cleaning up our estuary. Can't wait to see the pumps go to Work!

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