Water Farming: An Engineering Concept That Is Saving Florida's Coasts

While California wrestles with the impact of a severe water shortage, Florida deals with the effects of polluted water running off from the state's massive Lake Okeechobee. For thousands of years people have been trying to capture water for any number of reasons. In South Florida they are now capturing water in an effort to save the estuaries from receiving polluted water coming from Lake Okeechobee. A worthy endeavor that is sure to have wide-ranging ramifications on the world's ability to enjoy Florida's numerous ecological wonders. It is that fight to save the state's estuaries that produced the concept of water farming. You might not be familiar with the term, but the practice is paying huge dividends in a state that is desperate to protect its abundant natural resources.

With the backdrop of suffering estuaries and Florida citrus growers struggling to contain the outbreaks of greening and canker, two plant diseases that destroy crops, landowners and policymakers identified water farming as an alternative use for some of these properties. The approach would address a serious economic impact suffered by citrus growers and would also start the process of saving an ecological treasure. In 2013, Florida's agency charged with overseeing the state's water resources, decided to pilot a program whereby water flowing from the Lake to the St Lucie Estuary could be captured and stored on what was formerly a vibrant citrus grove.

Water farming is the practice of capturing and holding water on property in an effort to prevent it from traveling to ecologically sensitive areas. The process of capturing the runoff is relatively simple, but the benefits in preservation and economic terms are too numerous to quantify. There is a misconception that water farming is limited to capturing rain water. However, the Caulkins water farm in Martin County, Florida is not a passive operation. Water flowing from the Lake down the C-44 canal is pumped out of the canal and onto an inland reservoir that is surrounded by exterior earthen levees that are approximately six feet tall. The water that is captured eventually evaporates or is filtered through the soil and ends up in the earth's surficial aquifer. The term filtered is used because as the water travels through the soil it undergoes a filtration process whereby the soil, trees and plants capture the unwanted phosphorus and nitrogen. Preventing the phosphorus and nitrogen from reaching the estuaries helps avoid the harmful effects those nutrients can have on the coastal ecosystem. The end result is water that is substantially less polluted is what finally makes it into the state's waterways.

In the end, far too often policymakers receive well-deserved criticism for not appropriately addressing challenges impacting their constituents. The South Florida Water Management District should be commended for taking the bold step to try an unconventional approach to a serious problem. Future generations of people that will enjoy the benefits of the St. Lucie Estuary will have policymakers to thank. While we mostly hear about all that public servants do wrong, this is one time when they deserve credit for doing what is best for the people they serve.