A Step Towards Healing Florida’s Heart
By Christy Swift
It’s a perfect “old Florida” winter day in Brighton Valley: clear blue sky, cool breeze, endless sunshine. Across the rippling shallow water, clumps of cabbage palms shake their heads at one another like gossiping neighbors. The wind plays the native grasses like a string instrument. An anhinga stands knee-deep in water, wings outstretched, a feather-covered worshipper of this paradise. The only proof that I haven’t traveled back in time are the six, tall black pumps lined up like android guardians at the pond’s edge…
But those pumps are what has made all of this possible, because the Brighton Valley Water Project represents one of the challenges of our modern world—trying to fix the mistakes of the past.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
Brighton Valley is located on Lykes Ranch just to the northwest of Lake Okeechobee, and the natural scenery I’m enjoying is what this land probably looked like 400 years ago. Back then, water flowed from the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee and then through a natural mosaic of ponds, sawgrass marshes, hammocks, sloughs, and woodlands that we know as the Everglades. Early developers, however, not understanding the ecological importance of one of the world’s largest wetlands, decided to drain it to make the land usable for development.
Fast forward to today, when Lake Okeechobee has only two major drainage points—east to the St. Lucie River and west to the Caloosahatchee. These drainage points are controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps orders water releases from the lake when levels get too high. There are two major problems with this: one is that dumping large amounts of freshwater into the sea throws off salinity levels in fragile estuary ecosystems. Another problem is that the water being released is polluted, choked with nutrients from historic land use changes, causing algae blooms that kill fish and other wildlife and can even cause illness in humans (remember the 2017-2018 red tide?).
The need is twofold: A) to keep Lake Okeechobee levels low enough to reduce or eliminate the need for releases and B) to reduce water pollution.
PART OF THE SOLUTION
Fixing Florida’s water problems isn’t going to be easy, but the State of Florida has a plan. It’s called CERP (the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project), and the Brighton Valley Water Project is a small piece of it. In fact, Brighton Valley is one of 29 projects the State of Florida has challenged the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to accomplish in support of its overarching goal. The powerful pumps I’m looking at can move 560 cubic feet/second from an adjacent canal onto Brighton Valley land. Lykes head engineer Noah Handley puts this into perspective: “They make it rain about two inches a day.”
By leasing their land to SFWMD for water storage and operating and maintaining the project, Lykes not only helps lower Lake Okeechobee levels but also allows its wetland to clean the water through a natural filtering process. As the water gently flows westward through the roughly 8,000 acre basin, plants take up the excess nutrients through their roots (remember, this land is already ecologically designed to hold water). At the southern barrier, the water passes through a set of culverts back into a regional canal after having as much as 3.2 tons of phosphorus pollution removed per 95,000 acre-feet of water. Basically, it’s Mother Nature’s Brita.
CELEBRATING GOOD WORK BY GOOD PEOPLE
When the stakeholders took turns at the podium for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and initiation of the Brighton Valley pumps in September 2020, the joy and pride was palpable.
“Noah, we’re gonna find out if it works,” Charlie Lykes, the family patriarch, teased Handley before he threw the switch.
“We now have 26,500 acres of our property in proven cost-efficient shallow water storage projects and we’re very proud of that,” said Lykes CEO Johnnie James, referring to the Brighton Valley project as well as two previous projects: the West Waterhole project (launched in 2008) and the Nicodemus Slough project (launched in 2015).
“This is restoration in action,” SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartlett added before thanking the Lykes family for sharing their land.
“When Mr. Charlie turned on the pumps (…) it took a quarter foot off the top of Lake Okeechobee,” SFWMD governing board member Ben Butler said. He went on to explain that those three inches can make the difference between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordering a release from Lake Okeechobee or not.
A LUCKY “SIDE EFFECT”
In addition to the benefits to estuaries and a reduction in pollution levels, Bartlett mentioned a “bonus” advantage of water restoration projects like Brighton Valley—they provide crucial habitat for native plants, wildlife, and birds.
“It’s going to be a wildlife spa!” Bartlett predicted.
And it is. Due to an unseasonably wet fall, the pumps were run from September until the first week of January. The herons responded very quickly. So did the fish (both small and large fish are able to travel safely through the pumps). On a short ride down the eastern berm, Handley’s truck spooked no fewer than nine deer. Along the bumpy, wet northern border, five enormous alligators churned the water. A flock of meadowlarks buzzed us along the way.
Audubon’s Everglades Science Coordinator, Dr. Paul Gray said to expect the area to host 14 species of wading birds, 20 species of waterfowl, lots of fish, amphibians, and even otters. He claimed the wetlands might have the largest impact on North American migratory birds, whose populations have declined 30% in the last three decades.
Because Florida acts as a “funnel” for North American birds going south for the winter, they often spend time in our area “fattening up” for the long flight over the water to South America, Gray said.
“Songbirds can double their body weight in two weeks. They may only be here for two weeks, but those two weeks are extremely important. You’ve got to make it all the way across,” Gray said.
A TRUE PARTNERSHIP
Another unexpected benefit of the Brighton Valley water project might be the truly win-win nature of the collaboration. For those who work the land, it’s a welcome opportunity to practice good land stewardship (one of Lykes’ core values).
For policymakers and water management districts, it’s a cost- effective way to move the needle forward on lofty environmental and public health goals. For ecologists and the species they care about, it’s a gift.
Meanwhile, amongst the bird calls, rustling palm fronds, and the gentle whisper of moving water deep in the heart of old Florida, there’s something else to be felt: inspiration. And hope.
As Senator Ben Albritton said during his turn at the mic, “Twenty-five years ago this kind of stuff wasn’t popular, but we see today the value. What are we going to see the value in next?”