No Room for Water Wars: Paynes Prairie Sheetflow Project Hits Milestone

Groundbreaking Ceremony

As demand for water increases, making sure there is enough to go around is serious business. Battles over water rights in states like Georgia and Tennessee are being heard in courts across the country, and in the case of Texas and Oklahoma, all the way in the Supreme Court.

Gainesville is hoping to take a different route.

Faced with a growing water pollution problem, city utilities and local government officials decided rather than spend millions to simply update the downtown water treatment facility, the city should collaborate on a restoration project for local waterways that would result in a cleaner, more abundant source of drinking water for the community.

As state, county and city officials surveyed the progress being made on the $26 million Sweetwater Branch Paynes Prairie Sheetflow Restoration Project during the May 8 groundbreaking ceremony, much of the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Directors of surrounding water districts called it a “poster child for collaboration,” citing the several entities that were able to offer input on how to best design the reconstructed wetland area meant to “polish” runoff and waste water before it re-enters the waterways. General Manager for Utilities Bob Hunzinger calls a “culmination of a lot of hard work from a lot of different agencies.”

Contractors and engineers with Jones Edmunds and Wharton-Smith Inc. have been clearing land for the 162-acre wetland since late last year, with construction of the main basins and the maintenance bypass – a large pool that will skim out trash and slow the flow of water into the prairie – beginning over the past few weeks.

Executive Director of Suwannee River Water Management District Ann Shortelle attended the ceremony to show her support for the collaborative effort to solve water management problems. Shortelle said it is important to remember “there is no fence down there to separate water districts.”

“When talking about the possibility of water wars, we cannot have a water war,” Shortelle said. “A war implies winners and losers, and we can’t afford to have losers.”

The project first became a focus for the city back in 2002, when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection declared Sweetwater Branch and Alachua Sink to be polluted from excess nutrients and pollution that were in turn seeping into the aquifer. In 2007, the City Commission approved the sheetflow project as the best solution to rectify the damage from pollution.

When designing the project, engineers had two main goals: reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the water stream from the Main Street Water Reclamation Facility and urban stormwater, and restore the natural rehydration mechanisms of Paynes Prairie that had been obstructed by the canal built during the 1930s to drain the land and use it for cattle ranching.

In order to restore the original sheetflow pattern that will naturally filter the water before it moves through the prairie, developers will remove a 2-mile long canal that currently blocks the flow of water.

First steps in the construction of the wetlands began in October 2012 after the development partners received a $200,000 grant from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Recreational Trails Program, as well as $500,000 from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Aquatic Habitat and Restoration Section fund.

Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection Herschel Vinyard was present at the groundbreaking to check on the progress of the project, saying the efforts to restore the prairie are a “win all around for the Gainesville community.”

“Water is the lifeblood of our state and it’s a big focus of mine,” Vinyard said. “It is ambitious to fill two miles of the Sweetwater canal, but at the end of the day, it is worth it.

In addition to efforts to restore the prairie’s natural flow of water, GRU updated the Main Street wastewater treatment plant with $1.4 million in upgrades to help clean the water before it entered into the waterways.

“This is the most downstream point of the city of Gainesville’s organized area, so there are a lot of improvements that have gone on upstream of this both at the water treatment plant and in all of the urban areas to control stormwater runoff as well as wastewater runoff,” said Brett Goodman, a project manager with Jones Edmunds. “This is kind of the final polish that will remove sediment and trash before the water enters the prairie.”

Contractors expect to wrap up the project sometime in early 2014. Once the wetland filtration area is complete, the area will be opened to the public with a newly constructed visitor’s center and 4-mile trail system all accessible from Williston Road.

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