Saving the Everglades, America’s “green lung”

A system of dams, reservoirs and canals to reduce water pollution and protect the ecosystem

America is mobilising to preserve the Everglades, that natural wilderness treasure at the southernmost tip of the country. To restore the unique water quality of this subtropical ecosystem, the State of Florida has invested over $2.3 billion, plus another $1 billion in federal funds, in a programme that includes several projects, including one entrusted to the Webuild Group (formerly Salini Impregilo) with its U.S. subsidiary Lane Construction.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) was created by Congress in 2000 to prevent problems in this wilderness area and the connected water system from harming the population and economy of nearby cities Miami and Orlando.

The profitable tourism industry along the two coasts, the Atlantic Coast to the East and the Gulf Coast to the West, has been damaged several times by polluted fresh water flowing into the sea during the rainy season, causing the death of fish and other animal species, and afflicting the human population with breathing difficulties and skin diseases.

The hydrology of the Everglades, which occupy an area of over 6,000 square kilometers (2,316 square miles), begins with Lake Okeechobee. This is the eighth-largest natural freshwater lake in the United States and the biggest in Florida,  and occupies an area equal to half the state of Rhode Island, or 1,900 square kilometers (730 square miles).  The lake’s name comes from the words water (oki) and large (chubi) in the language of the Hitchiti Native American tribe. The Kissimmee River is its natural source, and with other outgoing channels forms two large estuaries: Caloosahatchee in the Gulf of Mexico and St. Lucie on the Atlantic coast north of Palm Beach.

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) is implementing approximately 70 large-scale environmental restoration projects under CERP and is actively involved in the removal of invasive plants and animals from the south Florida ecosystem.  In 2017 it began an organized hunting program to weed out the huge Burmese pythons that had infested the Everglades after being imported by traders of exotic animals and then dumped in the area. By 2019, the 2,000th python had been caught, the longest of which measured 5.5 metres (18 feet) and had swallowed an adult deer.

This unusual programme inspired a television series (“Guardians of the Glades”). About 1,000 professional hunters have now been included in a list of “anti-python agents”: veterans and public or private employees who, at the end of their working day, don camouflage suits and pick up their rifles to hunt the snakes, also with the help of drones and radar. The “Python Elimination Program” pays hunters about $10 an hour plus bonuses depending on the length of the python and the amount of eggs collected.

The C-43 project

The attention of Florida’s taxpayers is, however, focused on the $524 million Caloosahatchee C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir (WBSR) project for the protection of the coastal estuary and the containment of stormwater runoff and discharges from Lake Okeechobee. This project has been assigned by a state agency to a joint venture that includes Lane Construction (controlled by the Webuild Group). Work began on October 30, 2019 and is expected to be completed by December 2023.

The contract provides for the construction of a reservoir in the Caloosahatchee watershed in Hendry County, on the southwest coast of Florida, with an earth dam with a 26.2-km perimeter (16.3-mile) and a 4.5-km (2.8-mile) separating septum between two cells. In total, the reservoir will cover about 40.5 square kilometers (10,000 acres) and contain 210 million cubic meters (170,000 acre feet) of water. During rainy periods, the reservoir will contain stormwater runnoff from residential and agricultural land in the area and, during dry periods, it will provide the water supply needed to maintain optimum salinity levels.

“This is a big step forward in expediting one of our most important Everglades restoration projects,” said Governor Ron DeSantis at the ceremony to mark the start of construction, also on behalf of the SFWMD and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). “Once complete, the C-43 Reservoir will store approximately 55 billion gallons of water, with 19 miles of embankments and 15 miles of canals to reduce harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee and help bring the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary back to health.”

Combating the effects of pollution and climate change

Over the years, the Caloosahatchee estuary has suffered from the impact on natural water flows caused by residential and agricultural development in the area, especially orange groves and sugar cane, and increasingly strict limits have been placed on the use of fertilizers. Project C-43 will promote a healthy biological system through controlled water capture and release, and may help resolve the blue-green algae problem,much to the relief of South Florida residents who have long been demanding action.

The dredging and channeling carried out in the last century, as well as the artificial connection with Lake Okeechobee, have modified the hydrology of the Caloosahatchee, thus altering the flow to the estuary. Recent state government programmes also take into account the natural habitat of many protected species, such as manatees. These animals have a refuge in the form of a park at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee dedicated to them.

Florida’s manatee is a native species, and is a symbol of several counties in the state. The largest aquatic mammal in the order Sirenia, it was at risk of extinction until protection efforts resulted in its reclassification as threatened. This slow-moving herbivore is considered a key indicator for understanding Florida’s environmental and habitat changes.  Construction of the C-43 Reservoir will directly improve manatee habitat.

To restore the balance of the ecosystem as soon as possible, Lane continued working on the project throughout the COVID-19 crisis, protecting workers with strict security measures. The project covers a very large area between the Caloosahatchee estuary and Lake Okeechobee. The earth dam alone will be as large as Manhattan, while the storage capacity will hold enough water to fill 85,000 Olympic swimming pools.

Protecting Florida's ecosystem

Recognizing that a healthy ecosystem is vital to a healthy economy, a number of initiatives are under way to improve water quality, increase storage and reestablish the south Florida ecosystem. Webuild’s involvement in the construction of the C-43 Reservoir will contribute to a healthier Caloosahatchee Estuary and serves as an important component of the restoration of America’s Everglades.