Status update: Picayune Strand State Forest Restoration Project

November 11, 2022

For those of you that are unfamiliar with this project, it all stems from a land speculation deal that hoodwinked a lot of home buyers into purchasing swampland in Southern Golden Gate Estates. A once exceptional mosaic of cypress strands, mixed swamp forests, wet prairies, hydric flatwoods, and hammocks was converted into a massive grid of roads and canals.

Concerns about the degradation of the wetlands and hydrological changes to the area resulted in the State of Florida embarking on one of the most convoluted and difficult multi-parcel land acquisition projects ever attempted. This acquisition started with the goal of acquiring 37,000 acres with over 17,000 landowners from all over the world.

With the help of the Conservancy processing deeds, all the land was acquired and renamed Picayune Strand State Forest (PSSF). 

The restoration of PSSF is all about getting the hydrology right – basically undoing what the developer did by removing the majority of the road network, as well as plugging the canals. Additionally, three pump stations were installed as flood protection mechanisms to protect North Golden Gate Estates residents, each with its own spreader feature that slows the water down and spreads it over the land – mimicking natural sheet flow.

All that remains is to finish plugging the two remaining canals and complete the road removal. 

However, the final construction cannot take place until measures are in place to protect the agricultural lands, southwest of PSSF, just north of U.S. 41, from flooding. This project, referred to as the Southwest Protection Feature, is approximately 30% complete and consists primarily of a levee, canal and associated conveyance features. The conveyance feature under U.S. 41 will transfer water from the adjacent farm fields along with sheet flow emanating from Picayune Strand State Forest and shunt it south as a point source discharge – red arrow on the rendition below

This design will convey nutrient-rich water from the agricultural fields and urban areas directly into Collier Seminole State Park (CSSP), which has an Outstanding Florida Water (OFW) designation. 

Ironically, the OFW designation means CSSP is supposed to be protected by law from this very type of degradation. 

A Few of Our Major Concerns

  • Water Quality
  • Discharge as a Point Source into an Outstanding Florida Waterway (OFW)
  • Historic Rockland & Historic Pine Flatwoods Destruction from Altered Hydrology
  • Negative Effects on Threatened & Endangered Wildlife Species & Rare or Very Old Plant Communities

If you have driven by CSSP recently, you may be wondering about the construction that is happening right now on U.S. 41. Three box culverts are being installed under the road to move water from the Southwest Protection Feature into CSSP.

While the water needs to move south, it should not be allowed to do so as a nutrient rich point source discharge. The Restoration is about getting the timing, quality and quantity of the water right, enabling this project to be a success and a benefit, not a detriment, to the downstream conservation areas.

The water that will enter the culverts from the Southwest Protection Feature has documented pollutant levels that give it the dubious distinction of having some of the worst water quality in Collier County.  Therefore, the water must be cleaned up before it is discharged into the OFW. 

The Conservancy, other environmental groups including Audubon and the Florida Wildlife Federation, along with several different government agencies, raised concerns about this early on and we hoped that a plan was in place to prevent this water from entering CSSP until future stormwater treatment plans come to fruition. We recently learned that, indeed, such a contingency plan is being implemented.

Culvert Installation in Progress on U.S. 41

We would like to thank the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) for temporarily plugging the culverts, and preventing the pollution from entering CSSP until the water can be appropriately treated. The ACOE will keep the plugs in place until the Southwest Protection Feature is complete, affording the State needed time to hopefully get a treatment system in place to clean up the water.

Thank you to the South Florida Management District for spearheading efforts looking at stormwater treatment sites, which is the first step in installing a stormwater treatment system to treat the water.