Agri Leader

‘Water farming’ project promises big benefits

An innovative pilot project launched by South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and aimed at addressing water restoration issues by developing a network of so-called “water farms” on fallow citrus land has received a $1.5 million grant from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

The award is being matched by SFWMD for a total expenditure of $3 million to investigate whether water farming - the storage of rainwater on privately owned lands - can become a viable and cost-effective water management practice.

It could become another tool for reducing the amount of polluted storm water discharged into water bodies and coastal estuaries, said Damon Meiers, SFWMD’s principal engineer. The hope is that water farming will prove to be a cost-effective way to retain runoff and reduce the excessive nutrient loads that afflict many of Florida’s watersheds.

The new study evolved out of SFWMD’s existing Dispersed Water Management Program, which encourages property owners to retain water on their land rather than drain it.

The term “water farming” was actually coined by Indian River Citrus League (IRCL) and the practice is partially intended to give citrus growers wiped out by greening and canker a chance to keep their land in operation while awaiting resolution of those crises.

“The idea occurred to me about five years ago in a conversation with former Agriculture Commission Charles Bronson,” said IRCL executive vice president Doug Bournique. “We were talking about a dispersed water storage scenario for cattle ranches. But this was when greening was just rearing its ugly head on the east coast and I realized that we needed a temporary fix for fallow citrus land, because no one really wants to sell out unless they absolutely have to. So we needed to create a holding pattern for people in the hope that [a cure for greening] is found.”

Bournique then crafted a regional plan for the state to lease fallow citrus land for 10 to 20 years and ask landowners to build a system for storing water.

“Every year, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties run out of water during our dry season because historically, there hasn’t been any storage,” Bournique said.

As a result, billions of gallons of potentially available water are lost each year by being dispersed into Indian River Lagoon, the St. Lucie River estuary, and canal systems.

“So I realized that by creating a water farming system, not only could we rehydrate a dried out environment, but we could help save the lagoon and we could carry fallow citrus land into the future for those landowners,” Bournique said.

Last year, IRCL conducted a feasibility study funded by SFWMD.

As a result of IRCL’s vision and initiative, SFWMD has entered into cooperative agreements with three landowners to conduct pilot projects, which are being undertaken at Bull Hammock Ranch Grove and Caulkins Citrus Company in Martin County, and at Evans Properties Grove in St. Lucie County.

SFWMD will work with the three landowners to document and evaluate the implementation costs and environmental benefits of each individual project. After construction is completed, each pilot project will operate for two full years.

The water farms are expected to have positive impacts on the St. Lucie Watershed and Indian River Lagoon by reducing excess discharges, DEP said in a statement.

The project is also supported by Florida Farm Bureau Federation, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Its long-term goal, Bournique said, is to store virtually every gallon of rainwater that falls on

Martin and St. Lucie counties in a network of water farms. Ultimately, he said, the system could be expanded statewide and provide a huge benefit to Florida’s agriculture industry.

“We need to find new, cheap water sources,” he said. “And what could be better than finding a way to hold the rainfall that lands on our properties rather than shipping it east to tide, in an old archaic method that has been abusing the lagoon for more than a hundred years?”

The water farming project represents an important innovation, Bournique said.

“This project is the proverbial win-win-win situation,” he said. “The lagoon wins. Landowners of fallow citrus farms at least stay in the game. And you create a water supply for a depleted area.”