Clearing begins for project to ‘scrub' water before it flows onto Paynes Prairie


Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 4:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 4:53 p.m.

On a recent morning, large trucks rumbled on a swath of land north of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

In some directions, the land was largely barren. Except for two protected stands of cypress trees, the ground was a mix of dirt and mud worn by the tracks of trucks and heavy rolling equipment.

Heavy machinery has downed trees and brush to clear the land. Branches and tree trunks were gathered into a huge pile and set afire.

Gainesville officials plan for the scene to change significantly in the next 12 to 18 months.

These early stages of work on the long-planned $26 million Paynes Prairie Sheetflow Restoration Project will transition over time into the construction of basins, a pond, channels and some 125 acres of artificial wetlands planted with native vegetation to temporarily store and then scrub water that will flow onto the prairie and eventually into Alachua Sink.

The project's roots date back to 2002, when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection declared Sweetwater Branch and Alachua Sink to be polluted waterways.

The state required that the city of Gainesville clean up the pollution since the primary sources of pollution were stormwater runoff from a roughly three-square-mile urban area near the prairie and discharge from Gainesville Regional Utilities' Main Street sewer treatment plant.

The runoff and discharge flow through Sweetwater Branch to the prairie and then through a canal excavated in the 1930s into Alachua Sink.

Working with state agencies, the City Commission approved the sheetflow project as the plan to address the pollution back in 2007.

Some $5.2 million in state and federal grants are going toward the costs. The remainder is covered by a 69.5 percent/30.5 percent split of GRU sewer revenues and Public Works stormwater revenues.

The city's project will include filling in the canal to restore the natural "sheet" flow of water across the prairie and to the sink.

GRU also is in the midst of a $1.4 million upgrade to the Main Street treatment plant to reduce its environmental impact on Sweetwater Branch. Rick Hutton, supervising utility engineer with GRU, said the sheetflow is designed to reduce the levels of nitrogen in the water flowing through Sweetwater Branch while the wastewater plant improvement will cut phosphorus levels.

Once the sizeable construction project on the land at the north end of the prairie is complete, the city's plan is to open the approximately 260-acre site to the public as a park — with some three miles of trails, an open-air pavillion and viewing platforms.

Alice Rankeillor, the GRU project manager for the sheetflow project, said public access to the site is likely some 18 months away.

She noted that there are similar projects that have been fully restored and opened to the public in other areas of Florida.

"We used them as inspiration for our design here," Rankeillor said.

In Central Florida, the Orlando Wilderness Park was developed at the site of man-made wetlands designed to reduce the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in effluent before it discharges into the St. Johns River.

At Green Kay Wetlands in Palm Beach County, an elevated boardwalk system winds through hundreds of acres of man-made wetlands built to filter several million gallons of treated wastewater each day.

Near Melbourne, the Viera Wetlands were constructed to scrub discharge from a wastewater treatment plant and have become a popular area for photographers and bird watchers.

The future may hold a similar scenario for the Paynes Prairie Sheetflow restoration area. Right now, the present day is a little less picturesque. Crews are clearing land and adjusting the topography to prepare for the construction of three cells of wetlands. Temporary canals also are in place to divert the flow of Sweetwater Branch and Tumblin Creek away from the construction site to keep it dry.

Jim Hudson, construction superintendent with Wharton-Smith Inc., said the plan is to have the first area of wetlands — cell three — ready by September in order to plant vegetation there.

Nearby resident David Godfrey has served as a neighborhood liaison as the city has worked through the design and now the construction of the project.

"Ultimately the goal of the project is worthwhile," he said. "The water going into the prairie has issues. That is not good for the aquifer or the prairie. I've seen the end result of these projects in other areas and I think it will be a positive thing for the wildlife and the prairie."

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