Saltwater invasion: Can $460 million plan restore Loxahatchee River?

The cypress slowed their retreat, holding a line with their fat trunks planted like fists into sand against a slow creep of mangroves.

Assailed by unnatural saltwater surges deep into the Loxahatchee River’s northwest fork, the towering conifers that once held dominion have been pushed back into the blackwater twists of the river.

Squat tangles of salinity-loving mangroves now jam the upstream waterway in Jonathan Dickinson State Park — a raid triggered by man’s reroute of the natural flow of the northern Everglades.

While the mangroves’ forward march has eased in the Loxahatchee with tens of millions of dollars in restoration projects, further habitat repair could come from a long-delayed, $460 million plan to reconnect northern creeks and provide fresh water to the river from the south.

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The proposal, a third attempt by the South Florida Water Management District, is as far along as proponents have seen in a decade. It needs a go-ahead from the Army Corps of Engineers this fall before it can be brought up for public comment.

Support for the effort is far-reaching, and includes Martin County, the Loxahatchee River District and the Loxahatchee River Management Coordination Council.

The plan proposes using the C-18 Canal West to move water from a planned above-ground reservoir on the Mecca Farms site to the C-18 Canal and into the river. The district bought the vacant Mecca Farms site from the county in 2013 for $26 million.

According to the district, the proposed Loxahatchee restoration plan will meet 91 percent of the ideal flow level to the river during the dry season. Currently, about 60 percent of the flow is met.

But some groups want the plan tweaked when it comes to using the embattled Mecca Farms property near Palm Beach Gardens for an 8-foot-deep, above ground reservoir for the river. They’d prefer water flow naturally over the property once slated for the Scripps Research Institute — a move Sustainable Palm Beach County said can achieve the same success as a reservoir and at a cheaper price.

“We support the initiative of getting the water to the river, but question this path they’ve taken,” said former Palm Beach County Commissioner Karen Marcus, who is president of Sustainable Palm Beach County.

Others are concerned the plan takes too narrow of a focus, looking only at river improvements instead of a holistic approach that could improve other areas of the watershed.

“I definitely want it to move forward. I don’t want it delayed,” said Lisa Interlandi, executive director of the Everglades Law Center. “It’s an important project; we just think there are minor changes that could improve it.”

How another project delay will affect the cypress-mangrove standoff in the Loxahatchee is unknown, but restoration will likely pause.

While mature cypress survive just out of reach of the saltwater intrusion, new test plantings struggle in areas once thick with the regal trees, their outstretched arms draped with skirts of Spanish moss.

“I won’t see it like that in my lifetime, but maybe my kids and grandkids will,” said Mark Nelson, who has served as park manager for Jonathan Dickinson State Park for two decades. “We’ve done the triage, we’ve got the big gash sewn up, now it’s going to take us fixing it stitch by stitch.”

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The northwest fork of the Loxahatchee River flows north from Riverbend Park in Jupiter through Jonathan Dickinson before a U-shaped hook turns the river southeast to the Jupiter Inlet.

Three decades ago, parts of the meandering stream earned federal designation as a wild and scenic river – one of only two in Florida. It is the place where Victor Nostokovich, better known as Trapper Nelson, built a wooded riverside attraction, and amassed a treasure of 5,000 coins that park rangers found hidden in a fireplace long after his death. It is home to the endangered wood stork and threatened sandhill crane.

“It’s just an incredible paradise,” said Newton Cook, a member of the district’s Water Resources Analysis Coalition, during a meeting this month. “It is nature as it was.” 

But the Loxahatchee has suffered from development — roads cut off natural water flows, canals diverted water to keep communities that were built on wetlands from flooding. The permanent opening of the Jupiter Inlet in 1947, and dredging of oyster bars, sent a twice-daily fire hose of seawater flooding up the river.

In 1973, the United States Geologic Survey called the Loxahatchee a “river in distress.”

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During the dry season, the northwest fork doesn’t get enough freshwater moving downstream to keep the saltwater at bay.

“This is a system that evolved over thousands of years, and it’s changed in 50,” Nelson said.

The Loxahatchee restoration effort has been ongoing for at least 15 years and is part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP. The state and federal government would split the costs for the plan if approved.

Matt Morrison, the South Florida Water Management District’s federal policy and coordination bureau chief, said previous delays included a 2011 priority change that put an emphasis on the Central Everglades.

As new restoration plans were written, old plans had to be reworked. Also, the district lost hundreds of employees to layoffs and buyouts in 2011 – a reduction in staff that a former Florida Park Service bureau chief said hurt momentum.

“The people who didn’t get fired or muzzled, went somewhere else to work,” said George Jones, who as bureau chief oversaw parks from Fort Pierce to Key West. “When you start cutting budgets and people, you don’t have anyone left to work on these things.”

The project was picked up again in 2016.

On a recent trip upstream, Nelson pointed out cypress snags — trunks of dead trees that poke up above the mangroves like jagged Popsicle sticks. Palm trees, stressed by saltwater, have shrunken lollipop tops on spindly stalks.

But further in, freshwater leather ferns and lilies are making a comeback, swamp-loving pond apple trees bear fruit, and the cypress stronghold begins.

“It’s amazing this still exists in South Florida,” Nelson said.

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