FLORIDA -- U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a strong supporter of Everglades restoration, was among more than 130 people who celebrated the groundbreaking Feb. 18 of a new federal construction project to restore the Picayune Strand. When complete, the project will restore natural water flows over an 85-square-mile area, improve the area's hydrology, enable the return of more balanced plant communities, increase aquifer recharge and send fresh water in a more natural manner to the coastal estuaries.

Salazar was on hand for the groundbreaking ceremony for the start of the Faka Union Canal Pump Station Project, a component of the Picayune Strand Restoration Project, held at the project site in Naples, Fla. The Corps of Engineers, South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), and other partners came together on this $79 million project to build a pump station, remove roadway and continue canal plugging. It is one of three major federal construction projects to restore the Picayune Strand area.

Salazar was joined by Terrence C. "Rock" Salt, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army for civil works and Eric Buermann, chair of the SFWMD. The Army Junior ROTC unit from Palmetto Ridge High School presented the colors and Jacklyn Raulerson, Miss Florida 2010, sang the national anthem.

"Our partnership with the state of Florida, the Army Corps and many stakeholders to restore the 55,000-acre Picayune Strand is vital to this fragile ecosystem, and the work at Picayune Strand has significant benefits for the economy and quality of life in Florida," Salazar said. "From bridging the Tamiami Trail to the Site-1 Impoundment project our investments in Everglades restoration are investments in Florida's future in ensuring clean water for its citizens and for the environment. We are putting people back to work and restoring the River of Grass."

"With the start of construction on the Faka Union Canal Pump Station, our federal partners at the Corps are further building on the significant restoration progress that has already been made at the Picayune Strand," said Buermann. "This project provides an excellent example of the benefits that can be realized for south Florida's ecosystem through the cooperative efforts of the District, the state of Florida and the Corps."

"This project marks a major milestone in Everglades restoration," said Col. Al Pantano, commander of the Jacksonville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "The Picayune Strand Restoration Project is the first Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan project under construction and Faka Union is the largest of the three federal construction contracts," added Pantano, who also spoke at the event.

The Picayune Strand Restoration Project is a collaborative effort of local, state and federal governments, and will restore an area that is considered an ecological jewel of southwest Florida.

The 55,000-acre project site was once slated to be a housing development. In the 1960s and early 1970s, 279 miles of roads and 48 miles of canals were built. The housing development failed but the roads remained and four large canals are over-draining the area, resulting in reduced aquifer recharge, greatly increased freshwater point source discharges to the receiving estuaries to the south, invasion by upland vegetation, loss of ecological connectivity and associated habitat and increased frequency of forest fires.

In 1974, Collier County commissioned the first study to determine how to reverse the impacts of the failed housing development. In 1985, the state of Florida began purchasing the lots to allow for the area's restoration. Congress authorized the Picayune Strand Restoration Project in 2007 as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). In 2006, SFWMD expedited construction by filling in and plugging seven miles of the Prairie Canal and completing approximately 25 percent of the road removal. Habitat there is already showing significant signs of improvement.

In January 2010, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District broke ground on the first of three federal construction contracts. The initial $53 million Merritt Canal Pump Station Project will build a pump station, remove 95 miles of roads and install 55 plugs in the Merritt Canal. This project is well under way.

The project is critical to the survival of the endangered Florida panther. There are an estimated 100 to 160 adults left in the wild, with the only breeding population living in southwest Florida. The project will restore valuable panther habitat. It will also connect many public parks, refuges and preserves, to allow an uninterrupted wilderness corridor for the panther - essential as the panther requires a large territory. The third federal construction contract will be awarded for the Miller Canal Pump Station in the future. When complete, the project will feature three major pump stations, remove 260 miles of roads and fill in 48 miles of canals.