Everglades National Park (Pic by Rodney Cammauf, National Park Service; via army.mil)

The governing board of the South Florida Water Management District yesterday voted unanimously to move forward with eight public/private partnership projects to store water in the Northern Everglades.

The projects, which are known as dispersed water management, involve enlisting private landowners in solutions to help restore the Everglades and its tributaries. The district describes (.pdf) it simply as “shallow water distributed across parcel landscapes using relatively simple structures.”

Several state conservation groups have been vocal advocates of the projects, which they say could provide benefits to both water storage and water quality. Audubon of Florida proposed a similar project (.pdf) in 2010, saying that retrofitting canals and ditches with relatively small water control structures would allow for increased water retention for miles upstream.

The structures are also more cost effective than stormwater treatment areas or reservoirs, which can take over a decade to build and can cost as much as $76 million. Dispersed water management projects, on the other hand, can be completed in a couple years for less than half the cost.

One of the ancillary benefits of the projects is phosphorus reduction in Lake Okeechobee, which flows into the larger Caloosahatchee River. Nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen often lead to large-scale algal blooms that choke off oxygen to other marine species, causing fish and mammal kills and doing a number on local economies.

Water storage on Florida ranches may be beneficial to both state ranchers and the environment, but it hasn’t been without controversy. Last month, water management board member Joe Collins got caught in the crosshairs of a decision to store 34,000 acre-feet of water on Lykes Brothers ranch in Glades County. (Collins is vice president of Lykes’ ranching division.) Though Collins did not vote on the deal, which would span 10 years, many alleged a conflict of interest. The district later announced it would stick with the deal, and Collins himself said he would not resign because of it.

“These projects are cost efficient, can be implemented quickly, and build relationships with landowners,” said Audubon Everglades Policy Associate Jane Graham in response to the vote. “This is a bold step toward progress in the northern Everglades.”

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