The largest environmental construction project in Florida’s history will make a major impact on restoring the natural habitats of the Everglades while improving the quality of water in the region.
The C-44 Reservoir/Stormwater Treatment Area (STA), set for completion in the summer of 2018, is a project covering nearly 10,000 acres in South Florida. Once a vast area of natural wetlands, much of the land transitioned to agricultural use in the mid-20th Century after the construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike almost completely enclosed Lake Okeechobee, sharply reducing the flow of water into the region.
“As orange orchards and cattle farms moved into the area, it altered much of the natural habitat as the byproducts of pesticides and fertilizer began to infiltrate the water,” said Camille Dominguez, project manager for WSP USA.
Runoff carrying a high concentration of pollutants from those farms entered the freshwater supply, damaging the ecosystem in the nearby St. Lucie Estuary on the East Coast—jeopardizing more than 4,000 species of animals that call it home and the livelihoods of residents and businesses.
The solution is an environmental project on a scale never seen before in Florida. It includes the construction of several miles of canals, reservoirs and new wetlands in Martin County designed to clean billions of gallons of freshwater before it hits the St. Lucie Estuary and other waterways.
“Other attempts have been made to control the problem,” Dominguez said. “But this is the first operational project that can withhold freshwater from overwhelming the salt water areas of the estuary, which can cause environmental issues such as excessive amounts of algae overwhelming the ecosystem.”
The $105 million project is part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which sets out a long-term plan for restoring, protecting and preserving the water resources of Central and Southern Florida. The storm water treatment area includes 32 miles of berms, 30 miles of canals and 63 structures.
For the current phase of the C-44 project, WSP is serving as construction manager on behalf of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). Blue Goose Construction is handling the construction. WSP supports the SFWMD by ensuring the stormwater treatment area is constructed according to the design documents so that it meets established water quality goals. (See a video from Martin County explaining the project and its benefits.)
The project diverts water from the C-44 canal, which runs from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie River, through an intake canal to a pump station, and from there the water is pumped into a reservoir. The water then moves through a series of storm water treatment areas to remove nutrients like phosphorus from the water, with cleaner water then returned to the C-44 canal.
“As the water enters the six STA cells, it comes to a standstill to allow those pollutants to settle to the bottom of the cell,” Dominguez said. “These STA cells contain natural vegetation that depend upon these nutrients to grow, which will remove them from the reservoir.”
The STA basin is also designed to capture large amounts of runoff during storms to keep it from reaching the estuary, which will see less water, and cleaner water.
The project is designed to capture 65 percent of the average annual storm water runoff in the C-44 basin. With an average water depth of 15 feet covering 3,400 acres of land, the reservoir will be able to hold 16 billion gallons of water. The pumping station will be capable of pumping water in and out of the reservoir at a rate of 1,100 cubic feet per second, or about 717 million gallons per day.
“The C44 has three project components, a reservoir built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a pump station, and the STA, which is the largest component,” Dominguez said. “The STA covers a total of 6,300 acres with emergent vegetation.”
After the process is completed, the water is returned to the canal to complete its journey to the Everglades.
“What we are creating is an entire ecosystem,” Dominguez said. “It is very much an outside-the-box project, and the size is simply amazing. You can’t even see from the north side of the project to the south side.”
While there have been environmental projects that use similar approaches to water quality improvements, the scale of the C-44 project meant there were limited models to gauge the best practices to follow.
“In some ways, this is going to be an opportunity for scientists to experiment and test which vegetation will work best at this scale, and where they will be most effective,” Dominguez said. “It has the potential to have an impact far beyond this area.”
Dominguez has been working on the C-44 project since she joined WSP in 2013. For her and the entire WSP team, it has been a career-defining experience to be involved with a project on this scale that is making such a profound environmental impact.
“It has simply been amazing for all of us to be a part of the project and doing something for the environment,” she said. “One of the dreams you have when you study civil engineering in college is to be able to eventually go somewhere, fix the world and make it a better place. This is one of those projects.
“Watching the birds nesting around these areas, to see it all coming together—and to be a part of the team that is managing it to make sure it is being built the right way—is a great feeling for all of us.”