Dr. Ann Shortelle, Executive Director, St. Johns River Water Management District
From a bird’s eye view, the headwaters of the St. Johns River in coastal central Florida unfold as a vast network of open marshes, dense hardwood swamps and structures engineered to store massive amounts of water. Yet, this seemingly remote wilderness is surrounded by three-quarters of a million residents.
Florida’s longest river, the St. Johns River, begins its 310-mile northerly journey to the Atlantic Ocean from a drainage basin west of Vero Beach in Indian River County. The 2,000-square-mile basin — the headwaters of the St. Johns — is arguably the most distinctive portion of the river. Known as the Upper St. Johns River Basin, the area features marsh, sawgrass and cypress domes, and is similar in appearance to the Florida Everglades.
" Today, staff can operate the gates remotely from the Palm Bay Service Center, its headquarters in Palatka or anywhere using a smart phone. The gates can even be programmed to operate themselves "
In the early 1900s, the upper basin was diked and drained for agricultural purposes. By the early 1970s, 62 percent of the marsh was gone. Canals were constructed to divert floodwaters from the basin east to the Indian River Lagoon. The alterations diminished water quality in the lagoon and degraded the upper basin’s remaining marshes.
In 1977, the St. Johns River Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) embarked on an ambitious, decades-long flood control project that would revitalize the upper basin. The Upper St. Johns River Basin Project reclaimed drained marshlands by creating reservoirs and replumbing existing canals.
The goals were numerous: to improve water quality, reduce freshwater discharges to the Indian River Lagoon, provide for water supply, and restore or enhance wetland habitat. All of these goals fall within the stated mission of the district.
This semi-structural network comprises one of the largest flood control and marsh restoration projects in the world, which has received recognition in 2016 as the Florida Engineering Society’s Project of the Century and an excellence in engineering award, as well as the international Thiess River Prize in October 2008. The project’s environmental restoration technology and green infrastructure demonstrate a new level of compatibility between flood control and environmental protection.
Now that the completed project has moved into long-term maintenance, district staff figuratively and literally keep a thumb on the pulse of the Upper Basin’s many canals, water storage areas and water control structures.
In recent years, there has been a shift in the technology the agency uses to move billions of gallons of water throughout the 200,000-acre Upper Basin project. A major software upgrade completed in spring 2019 ensures the district will continue to carry out one of its most important missions — providing flood protection to a sizeable portion of Florida’s east-central coast — while enabling the district to safely and efficiently manage the movement of the river’s headwaters.
Previously, the district had to send a dozen or more people out ahead of a storm to open and close water control gates to prevent flooding. Now staff can do it through an improved software system that allows the operation of structures through telemetry.
The historic 2004 hurricane season prompted the agency to investigate the benefits of remote operation to ensure the safety of employees charged with driving out to the various water control structures each time they needed to be opened or closed.
Remote control technology and other major upgrades to district equipment moved the agency light-years ahead. Today, staff can operate the gates remotely from the Palm Bay Service Center, its headquarters in Palatka or anywhere using a smart phone. The gates can even be programmed to operate themselves.
That’s a far cry from the headwaters’ fate in the early 20th century when, as discussed earlier, agricultural interests reconfigured and drained the marsh with steam shovels to create farmlands. There was, of course, a price to pay for these alterations. Hurricanes devastated the region in the 1920s and 1940s, prompting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to build a flood control basin in the 1950s. The project included a network of canals to drain floodwaters to the Indian River Lagoon.
The district and USACE renewed efforts and long-term vision have resulted in today’s Upper St. Johns River Basin, and a river revitalized through the reclaiming of drained marshlands, plugging canals, building reservoirs and mimicking nature by storing water in restored marshes rather than purging it to the lagoon.
The Upper Basin project has proven itself several times, during the drenching rains of Tropical Storm Fay in 2008 and again during Hurricane Mathew in 2016 when the project again performed flawlessly. In 2017, the project provided ample flood storage when Hurricane Irma brought 2.2 trillion gallons of rainwater, or enough to cover 6.7 million football fields in one foot of water, over a two-day period.