Progress seen on Paynes Prairie water cleanup project


Published: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 6:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 6:30 p.m.

On roughly 250 acres just north of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, downed tree branches and trunks lie in tall piles and vehicles rumble along dirt roads.

Several months after crews began work on Gainesville's long-planned $26 million Paynes Prairie Sheetflow Restoration Project, land clearing continues, but the transition to construction has started.

Concrete walls mark the sides of the “swimming pool,” a 550-foot long,180-foot wide basin designed to filter the sediments and trash out of the water flowing through Sweetwater Branch to the prairie.

South of that, an excavated valley is the future site of a lake where the water will move before it is routed to three cells of artificial wetlands that will temporarily store and scrub the water before it flows onto the prairie.

A more than three-mile-long canal excavated in the 1930s will be filled in as part of the plan to restore the natural “sheet” flow of water across the prairie.

“Instead of using science to control nature, we're using science to let nature control itself,” said Helen Warren, president of the Alachua Audubon Society, one of the environmental groups that provided input on the city's plan

Years in the making, the project was the city's chosen option for addressing a Florida Department of Environmental Protection requirement to reduce the nutrient and pollution that flowed through Sweetwater Branch onto the prairie and through Alachua Sink into the aquifer.

Sweetwater Branch collects stormwater runoff from a large swath of the city's core. Gainesville Regional Utilities' Main Street wastewater treatment plant also discharges into the waterway.

On Wednesday, government officials and environmentalists toured the progress of the work as part of a groundbreaking ceremony held several months after ground actually broke.

The contingent included state DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard, who said the massive construction project had a simple end goal to “let nature do its thing.”

The DEP declared Sweetwater Branch and Alachua Sink to be polluted waterways in 2002 and the city decided on the sheetflow restoration plan in 2007. But design work and tapping funding sources then consumed years.

“We've got a sense of urgency because this project is something that has been on the shelf too long,” Vinyard said.

Rick Hutton, a supervising engineer with the GRU water/wastewater systems, said federal, state, county and city officials and representatives of multiple environmental groups all contributed to the project. State and federal grants raised more than $5 million for the project. The rest will be financed by GRU sewer revenues and Public Works Department's stormwater fee revenues.

An associated $1.4 million upgrade to the Main Street wastewater treatment plant was also part of the effort to clean up the water streaming through Sweetwater Branch to the prairie. Hutton said that if officials had focused solely on a sewer plant upgrade to meet the DEP requirements instead of constructing basins, lakes and wetlands to treat the water, the price tag was estimated to exceed $40 million.

When work wraps up at least a year from now, there will be a nature park with three miles of trails on the berms that will run through the property, an open-air pavillion and viewing platforms.

The construction of artificial wetlands to treat wastewater discharge and the transformation of those wetlands into a nature park and wildlife habitat has already played out at the Orlando Wilderness Park in central Florida, Green Kay Wetlands in Palm Beach County and the Viera Wetlands near Melbourne.

“It's really reducing the human impact on a natural area,” said Tim Martin, a member of Friends of Paynes Prairie. “It's a win-win-win-win proposition.”

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