Florida’s first, true “water farm” exceeds all expectations, according to state officials. An expanded Caulkins Water Farm on 3,200 acres near Indiantown 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.
Situated along Citrus Boulevard next to the C-44 canal, the Caulkins pilot project stunned South Florida Water Management District engineers almost immediately by storing more than double the amount of water expected.
Despite its unexpectedly superior performance, however, the project still must overcome two major hurdles: Funding ends within seven months, so the project must appeal to state legislators now embroiled in budget battles for funds to expand it, at the same time that water farming itself has come under fire by some environmental activists.
“I wish there was some other term for it than 'water farming,' just because it sounds crazy,” says George Caulkins III, whose father planted the orange grove on Citrus Boulevard in the early '60s that now stands fallow in 4 feet of water. Caulkins was addressing a group of Stuart-Martin County Chamber members on a tour of the South Florida Water Management District pilot project in May.
“I'm a citrus farmer, and when the Water Management District first approached me about turning my orange groves into a water farm, I said 'no, not interested,'” said Caulkins, who was educated at Yale and is a former Marine helicopter pilot and veteran of Desert Storm.
The Caulkins Groves next to the C-44 canal were 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.
The first early successes resulted in an expansion of the program in 2011, after citrus greening had decimated thousands of acres of Florida orange groves, including those of the Caulkins Indiantown Citrus Co. Fallow orange groves were looked at to store water as Everglades projects came online.
“We'd survived everything that could be thrown at citrus farmers,” Caulkins said, “drought, freezes, hurricanes, canker ... but greening killed us, just took us to our knees ... We stopped picking oranges four years ago, but now we've got a new use for old technology (the irrigation infrastructure for farming), dreamed up by the South Florida Water Management District.”
The infrastructure already in place -- the water pumps and canals throughout the property -- dramatically reduces the upfront construction cost of a water farm, although until the Caulkins project, no other true “water farms” were part of the district’s Dispersed Water Management Program anywhere in the state.
State's first water farm
SFWMD, with a matching $1.5 million grant from DEP, published a request for proposals for water farm pilot projects in 2012 and three farms were selected in 2013, just as raging rains were causing unrelenting discharges from both Lake Okeechobee and the local drainage basin.
Of the two pilot projects in Martin County and one in St. Lucie County, Caulkins is the largest and the first in the state to be operational.
Other Dispersed Water Management Projects 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 that looks 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.
“It's as different as a farm is to a factory,” said Tom Kenny, the Caulkins project manager, who struggles to find the right words to outline clearly the enormous benefits of a water farm over other types of Dispersed Water Management sites.
Essentially, in addition to storage, the water farm also cleanses billions of gallons of water while recharging the surficial aquifer, capturing about 75 percent of the phosphorous and 50 percent of the nitrogen that otherwise would foul Martin County's estuaries.
The project, enclosed entirely by a 7-foot levee built with the spoil from a newly dug canal, 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.
Operational since mid-February 2014, the Caulkins pilot project -- including the existing 22 miles of irrigation canals, within and around the perimeter -- has stored 8.6 billion gallons of water, more than 25,000 acre-feet of water, nearly 2.25 times what had been expected, according to project engineer Melissa Corbett of the MilCor Group.
Designed to hold 6,780 acre-feet of water, the SFWMD statistical report -- which excludes the water stored in the existing canals on the property -- shows more than 12,000 acre-feet of water have been stored within the reservoir's 413-acre reservoir proper.
“Right off the bat, it was so successful,” Kenny added, “that they (SFWMD engineers) made us stop pumping so they could come in here to dig a monitoring well right smack in the center to see where all that water was going, so those numbers do not include the month it took to do that.”
An independent technical analysis by the University of North Florida's engineering department confirmed what SFWMD had discovered -- that the water was not going right back into the C-44, Kenny said.
With the addition of 14 monitoring wells on the perimeter of the project, the results are continuing to be studied by multiple agencies. Christopher Brown, a UNF engineering professor, has confirmed that around 82 percent of the water percolates downward into the sandy soil to recharge the aquifer, 11 percent is lost to evaporation, and around 6 percent remains static within the reservoir.
“The first question people are going to ask is, does this water drain back into the C-44, and, yes, some of it will, eventually,” said Dr. Brown, “but it will take from one to 10 years, and it will be a slow seep from the aquifer, not the deluge that's so damaging now.”
Estuaries hang in the balance
Although area scientists, including Dr. Edie Widder, founder of the Ocean Research Conservation Association in Fort Pierce, often caution that the Indian River Lagoon/St. Lucie River estuaries are now at a critical “tipping point of no return,” most of the public's focus has been on long-term solutions, leaving the estuaries at the mercy of incessant, polluted stormwater drainage from the Okeechobee/St. Lucie River drainage basin and the unpredictable, periodic deluge of Lake Okeechobee discharges.
“We all know that the St. Lucie River and the IRL (Indian River Lagoon) needed projects completed yesterday,” said Martin County resident Kevin Powers, vice chair of the South Florida Water Management District governing board, who addressed a tour group on June 1.
Powers, under fire since he led the SFWMD vote not to exercise the state's option to purchase 48,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee, pointed west toward the C-44 reservoir and stormwater treatment construction site, explaining to visitors that it will not be operational until 2020; however, the privately constructed Caulkins project took only 16 weeks to complete.
“The most abused resource we have is time,” Powers added, “and for whatever reasons, federal projects take a long time ... but these (water farms) are deliverables that we can count on now, and since we don't need to purchase the land to do this, the upfront cost is much lower.”
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.
“This really is a win-win-win,” Caulkins said. “This resolves an immediate, pressing issue for the St. Lucie River as we wait for other restoration projects to come on line. It will also allow time for researchers to find a possible cure or solution to citrus greening, which means I can hope one day to return to citrus farming.”
As long as Caulkins keeps alive that hope and still can earn an income from his land, he's far less likely to sell it to developers. In the meantime, the land remains on Martin County's tax rolls, can help restore the estuaries, and gives hope that the county's citrus industry can one day rebound.
“When he first bought land in Martin County, my father was told the soil was too sandy here to grow oranges,” Caulkins said, “but after a hurricane wiped out all their groves up on the ridge, he said that sandy soil had saved him. After I took over, he reminded me again: 'Son, this sandy soil will save you.'”
What he could not have foreseen was that sandy soil would help save not only an orange grove and a family business, but an estuary, too.
Barbara Clowdus is editor and publisher of Martin County Currents. This story is printed here in advance of the Currents' June edition, in which it appears.