JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Nov. 8, 2009) -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded a $53-million construction contract Nov. 4 for the Picayune Strand Restoration Project as part of Everglades restoration in Collier County, Fla.

The contract award was made possible by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed earlier this year by President Obama, according to Corps of Engineers officials in the Jacksonville District responsible for the contract. They said it is the first federally funded construction project of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

Nearly $40 million provided by ARRA allows full funding of the project, accelerates the construction schedule, and helps create much-needed jobs in southwestern Florida, officials said.

Work to be performed under the contract awarded to Harry Pepper and Associates of Jacksonville, Fla., includes construction of a pump station, plugging of miles of canals, and removing crumbling roads built for a failed subdivision. Construction is scheduled to start in December and take about two years to complete.

"This is a huge advance for Everglades restoration," said Jacksonville District Commander Col. Al Pantano. "We're moving into a period of intense construction activity around the ecosystem."

"This project, when combined with the contributions already made by the state of Florida, will show the positive effects of restored hydrology in a fairly short amount of time. This is another great example of federal, state and local entities working together to accomplish more than any one could achieve on its own," Pantano said.

The Picayune Strand project area includes 55,000 acres of native Florida wetlands and uplands between Alligator Alley (Interstate 75) and the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) in the southwestern corner of the state.

The land was formerly a privately owned subdivision called Southern Golden Gate Estates. Decades ago, canal excavation and road construction disrupted the natural water flow and over-drained the area, which led to reduced aquifer recharge, greatly increased freshwater discharges to southern estuaries, and increased invasion of upland and non-native vegetation. All of this caused the loss of ecological connectivity and habitat expanses sufficient to support the endangered Florida panther and other wildlife, officials said.

In 1974, Collier County commissioned the first study to determine how to reverse the impacts of the failed development.

"Picayune Strand is a crown jewel of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan," said Paul Souza, field supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's South Florida Office. "Four decades ago, this area was slated to become a suburb of Naples. But today, because of leadership shown by our Everglades partnership, we're one step closer to achieving its restoration potential.

"This latest step by the Corps underscores our federal commitment and sets the future of the Picayune Strand in motion. Our endangered Florida panther and many other species will benefit," Souza said.

The project area is almost entirely surrounded by public lands including the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Collier-Seminole State Park and the Picayune Strand State Forest.

In the 1980s, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection began land acquisition that ultimately cost about $250 million. To expedite restoration, the South Florida Water Management District moved ahead with an effort to plug the northern seven miles of the Prairie Canal, remove about 200 miles of roadways adjacent to the canal, and clear exotic plant species from the canal banks. This work was completed in 2006.

The South Florida Water Management District also moved forward with much of the design effort and completed construction on one of four phases of road removal.

"It is extremely gratifying to see Picayune Strand restoration continue forward with this construction contract," said Ken Ammon, South Florida Water Management District deputy executive director for the Everglades Restoration and Capital Projects. "With the state-federal partnership strengthened by new federal funding, we're going to see real benefits to South Florida's ecosystem."

"This project now focuses on the Merritt Canal area. With the future award of two additional contracts beyond the Merritt Canal contract, we'll virtually complete the restoration of Picayune Strand," Pantano said.

The Merritt Canal project includes installing 55 plugs in 13.5 miles of the canal which was originally dug to provide flood protection for the abandoned Golden Gate Estates residential project. The contractor will build an 810-cubic-feet-per-second pump station and spreader canal that will allow natural resource and water managers to direct fresh water to drained wetlands, as well as to maintain flood protection on land outside the project area.

Ninety-five miles of crumbling roads will be removed, along with non-native vegetation, to further enhance restoration efforts. The project will restore fresh-water wetlands, and will improve estuarine water quality by increasing groundwater recharge and reducing large and unnatural freshwater inflows.

The Corps will award two additional contracts to complete Picayune Strand restoration under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, Jacksonville District officials said.

(Nanciann Regalado writes for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District.)