An Ironic Hope for the Future, Water Farming, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

Caulkins Grove off of Citrus Blvd. is a pilot project of the SFWMD for water farming. (Photo Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch 7-18-14.)
Caulkins Grove off of Citrus Blvd. in Martin County is a pilot project of the SFWMD for water farming. (Photo Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch 7-18-14.)

On Friday, July 18th, Dr Gary Goforth ( and I met at Indian River State College just after noon. I jumped in his truck, wearing my dress and heels, and we drove the back roads to find our destination. Our destination was long time Martin grove, Caulkins Citrus, located off Citrus Boulvard, near Indiantown, adjacent to the C-44 canal which of course connects to the St Lucie River/IRL and to Lake Okeechobee.

Kevin Powers, of the South Florida Water Management District governing board, longtime Martin County resident, and family friend, had invited Gary and I to see a pilot project of “water farming.” Water farming is idea that has been in the works for the past few years and is now finding its reality. If it works, thousands of acre feet of polluted water along the C-44 canal, in this case, will not find its way to the St Lucie River/ Indian River Lagoon. Farmers are paid for this service and their lands are not sold to development.

How could this be? Farmers “growing” water?

First we have to go back a bit.

In a Stuart News article dated April of 2013, Doug Bournique, executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League, is interviewed by reporter Paul Ivice. Ivice writes:

“Diseases, (greening and canker), hurricanes and urban expansion have all cut into Florida’s citrus acreage which is down 38% from 1996…Nowhere in Florida has acreage fallen as sharply as in Martin County. It has less than 15% remaining of the 48,221 acres in production in 1994. The county has suffered the greatest loss for four consecutive years and and been declining sine 1994.”

A diseased citrus tree stands in what was once a thriving orange grove. (Photo JTL)
A diseased citrus tree stands in what was once a thriving orange grove, Caulkins Citrus. (Photo JTL.)

As the citrus industry is dying, so is our economy. While farmers figure out what else they can grown on their land, the idea for some farmers to hold precious fresh, all be it polluted, waters on their lands came into being. This helps the river and it helps the farmers and it helps our local economy. Boyd Gunsalus, among other scientist at the SFWMD, has worked long and hard for the past many years on this concept.

Caulkins Citrus is in a prime location and were one of the farms that competed for a bid to try out the new technology and receive a DEP/SFWMD grant.

An example from Google Maps showing C-44's close proximity to Citrus Blvd. Hwy. 76 is south of canal and Citrus is north.
An example from Google Maps showing C-44’s close proximity to Citrus Blvd. Hwy. 76 is south of canal and Citrus is north.

When Gary and I arrived we were met by Tom Kenny, Kevin Powers, and Ronnie Hataway. After introductions, they explained to us how the “farm”operated, how it was created, their hopes for the future, and gave us a walking and driving tour. It was pretty amazing if not surreal. Egrets and herons perched in the dying orange trees surrounded by water. A deer track was at my feet. Water was everywhere and from what I was told could one day go to the horizon.

Although Gary and I had been somewhat skeptical, we left feeling very hopeful and impressed.

So how did they create it?

Basically the grove is fallow due to poor health, and although the farm is much larger, (thousands of acres) a  berm was constructed around a few hundred acres of the grove for the pilot study. Then water was/is pumped from the C-44 canal into the old grove. The berm holds the water inside.

The water can go as high as four feet but according to Mr Kenny it is percolating so well through the soft sandy soils that basically the pump can stay on all the time. The nitrogen and phosphorus and other pollutants are cleaned and eaten by healthy bacteria as the water filters through the earth.

The pilot’s long term goal is to hold 6600 acre feet of water but things are looking like they will be able to hold more. The water is slowly filtered into the water table replenishing the aquifer about 40 feet below. Caulkins is installing a number of apparatuses that they call “wells” that will read where the water is going and what is happening underground. If things work out, Caulkin’s acreage to hold water will be expanded.

Various photos of the SFWMD pilot water farming project at Caulkins Grove: fallow orange groves surrounded by brim, pumps bringing in water form C-44 canal, sand, deer track.
Various photos of the SFWMD pilot water farming project at Caulkins Grove: fallow orange groves surrounded by berm, pumps bringing in water from C-44 canal right next door,  sandy soil, and deer track.

IMG_6579 IMG_6585 IMG_6588 IMG_6591 IMG_6596 IMG_6599 IMG_6602 IMG_6605 IMG_6608 IMG_6611 IMG_6577 IMG_6589 IMG_6594 IMG_6606 IMG_6575 IMG_6578 IMG_6581 IMG_6587 IMG_6595 IMG_6604

Although this is wonderful, we must note that it would take many water farms to offset the water flowing into the SLR/IRL.

Dr Goforth states in a recent writing: “For the 34 days between June 13 and July 17, approximately 51,000 acre feet of C-44 runoff was sent to the St Lucie River…”

With that in mind, if a water farm similar to Caulkins could hold 10,000 acre feet, we would need five just to hold the water that has come in this summer SO FAR from C-44 basin runoff. Of course in time, 2020 maybe, the C-44 Storm Water Treatment and Reservoir and Storm Water Treatment Area will be one line, and hopefully working, and that is said to hold  about 56,000 acre feet. (

In the end, really though, no one knows how much water can be held until these projects are working. Hopefully all of them, like Caulkins Grove seems to be so far, will exceed expectations. 

As we tied up our tour, shook hands and left the property Mr Hataway said, “I have been telling them for years to keep this fresh water on the land….”

Mr Kenny noted, “The goal is to have less water going into the river and out the inlet…”

It is an ironic twist of fate. We worked for 100 years to drain the lands so we could grow agriculture. Now we are trying to keep the water on the land for the health of the river, because fresh water is extremely valuable, and because the citrus industry needs a new crop. 

Words such as these about “keeping the water on the land,” especially from successful agriculturally minded businessmen, are an inspiration to me, and give hope for a better water future.


After the fact, I am including  this 2 page summary provided to me  by the SFWMD when I asked about costs on behalf of blog reader George Gill. Click to enlarge.

photo 1 SFWMD summary WF



DEP/SFWMD Water Farming Grant: (

Citrus Greening UF:( 

20 thoughts on “An Ironic Hope for the Future, Water Farming, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

  1. Well done Jacqui. We had some very interesting conversations about this at one of Rep.Larry Lee Jr.’s Advisory Committee meetings. Cattleman Mike Adams explained that there are some obstacles that needed to be addressed to better protect the farmers willing to engage in this practice. He told us that after a fashion, the area being flooded starts turning into a wetland, and that the FDEP has been known to step in and DECLARE it as such, which of course now removes the land from production fore-ever. He said quite a few farmers and cattleman are interested, but nervous about making the commitment. Did anyone there express any of these concerns?

    1. Marty is did come up for the overall situation. It is an issue on many levels. To me Caulkins appeared to be in for the long haul if it worked. I think they can make enough money to “make it work.”
      I read an article while in California about farmers selling water they had stored. The money they were making was so much they could retire. Of course California is in a severe drought and has different water laws than us, but still….One day we will be in a drought and people will be fighting over water and who owns it as well….I am sure all of this will have controversies and challenges we have not even anticipated like the wetland designation issue. For me the water farming is a step in the right direction even if it is not a cure all—and if it can be so attractive that farmers want their lands or a portion of their lands to become forever wetlands–temporary wetland will be difficult as animals will move in, some endangered species for certain.-I say, keep paying the farmers, motivate them not to want to go back. Let’s all value water even though I will costs us. What better place to put our money? Thanks for your comment. Good to hear from you!


      1. Chris.. water farming is a “component” not a solution. EVERY drop that slows down and spends more time being cleansed by terrestrial plants is a victory, no matter where in the system it occurs. Like Jacqui, I am for this, and hope that the details in the way of it moving forward can be worked out. I do agree with you Chris, that it DOES bear close inspection, our State Government has a history of padding the pockets of ag, but if administered “honestly” it could be a great help. Thanks for all you do Jacqui!

  2. jacqui,

    to hear politicians talk about it, water farming is the cure for all our pollution problems. it’s really clear how it bails out citrus farmers, but there are so many details left out that it is unclear if it is the best use of funds to help stop river pollution. leaving aside for a moment that the water farming volumes are a drop in the bucket for last year’s discharges, and this will do nothing to stop lake o discharges – and talking about water farming takes valuable focus away from the only ‘real’ solution – just what are the numbers we are talking about here?
    how much are the upfront and recurring yearly costs for this water storage? how much storage?
    more importantly, what are the terms of the contracts? are we only paying for a temporary storage of water, and 5 or 10 years from now the land will be sugar fields, or worse, a condo development? if that is the case, wouldn’t a better use of these funds be to acquire land or conservation easements east (and SOUTH!) of the lake so we could create permanent wetlands that will help ensure the river & lagoon are healthy for future generations?

    keep in mind land is still pretty cheap and interest rates are at a multi-generational low.

    does ‘everyone’ win with water farming, really? we need a lot more details. it is our money, after all. if we want to bail out citrus farmers, let’s not dress it up and call it saving the river. if our goal is to save the river, let’s make sure the terms of the contracts reflect that.

    1. indianrivguy,

      i would love to be convinced. as you say it could be a boon for us but the devil is in the details. so let’s see the contract details now, up front and center, so we can all trust but verify that the honest are being honest, and perhaps tweak things if necessary 😉

      and yes thanks for all you do jacqui!

    2. Dear Cris, thank you for your comment. I think I understand your concerns and doubts. The focus for a flow way south how ever that occurs is critical of course, and I think water farming can help get us there as odd as it may sound.I believe one has to incorporate those who set this present drainage system up in order for them to make the transition to building a flow way. Farmers have to get on board. Start with the citrus farmers first and then go to the sugar farmers….they have to be brought and/or bought in. I have always been and remain critical of agriculture’s main role in the destruction of our rivers and state lands. But I also know they have a lot of power and influence;and they have to help us build a different future.
      Mind you, I believe in eminent domain too, but that is not on the table today.
      Sorry if the word “everyone” was too broad, I learned a long time ago in journalism 101 to avoid such words while writing. I failed today. I may go back and change it. I appreciate your comment very much and please continue to converse with me. As far as the numbers— this is a grant. See the link at the end of the blog. I think Caulkins paid 500k for the berm through the grant. I think they could get a million dollars a year to hold the water. That is what I overheard but I don’t know really. For me, since it is a pilot those details will be changing and worked out after they figure out if they can even do it. Does it benefit citrus growers? Yes. Is it a benefit to the SLR/IRL? Slightly. Cam it grow into a flow way? I believe so. It’s a mindset. Water has to be the value. We have to start somewhere.
      Dr Goforth was taking notes. If you would like to contact him, please let me know if you don’t have his#. I am certain you would get a lot out of speaking to him. Not change your mind but maybe hear something new.Thank you. Hope you’ll write again.

    3. Chris.. could not have been said better; “and talking about water farming takes valuable focus away from the only ‘real’ solution –” that is why we will NOT be discussing anything but sending water south at the August 3rd Rally at the Locks, and why no politicians will speak excepting Jacqui, who is speaking as Leader of the MC River Kidz.. Our State elected officials offer us EVERYTHING that does not include the solution… sending clean water south. Our Rally will be about how fed the hell up we are with these distractions, empty promises that take thirty years to enact and components so they “look” like they are on “our” side and most importantly, don’t make their sugar daddies angry. It is PAST time for honest representation. Until WE flex the Ballot Box at them, NOTHING will change. Please join us at the Locks August 3rd, be a part of history, cement your legacy to your descendants, and be proud of what you see in the mirror looking back.

  3. Jacqui,

    What’s the cost?

    Can Water Framing be done with green energy …. It seems to me that the biggest problem (energy storage) is not a big requirement with Water Farming.

    I enjoy and look forward to your posts.

    Thank You, GG

    1. George, I will try to get the costs from dep/SFWMD. I will get back to you. It was a field trip not a business meeting, but of course costs are critical to whether the farming will be successful and it is our tax money. Thank you so much.I will contact the SFWMD and see what they give me to share. I so appreciate you comment!

    2. George I am going to post the 2 page summary the SFWMD provided at the bottom of the blog because I cannot do it here. PDF format –I made JPEg. I need a link and do not know show to do it.

  4. Are we,when all is said and done; paying farmers to use their property to store dirty water and just moving the problem from the river to the land?

  5. Shouldn’t ALL farmers be REQUIRED to keep their phosphorous and nitrogen-laden runoff on their own farmland until it is clean enough to release????
    By law, we cannot release any water south to The Everglades until it is lower than 10 parts per billion. That requirement alone would solve most of the pollution issues especially where sending it south is concerned.

  6. Really good piece. So educational and the picture are extremely important. TY Appreciate. Heard through the grapevine our Governor is going to put another $20 million towards buying land. I hope and wish and pray it’s true!!

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