Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Alachua County, Florida, became Florida’s first State Preserve in 1971 and is widely known as a world-class wetland. The Prairie has been designated an Outstanding Florida Water as well as a Florida Natural and Historical Landmark. Stormwater runoff and pollution from the City of Gainesville (Paynes Prairie’s closest neighbor) flowing downhill in Sweetwater Branch onto the Prairie Basin had a marked effect on the water quality, water quantity, and aquatic plant communities of the Prairie’s wetlands and lakes. Alachua Sink, a natural lake within Paynes Prairie, was identified as an impaired water body and FDEP established a regulatory TMDL that required nitrogen discharging to this lake to be reduced from all sources. The Sweetwater Branch/Paynes Prairie Sheetflow Restoration Project presented a unique opportunity to rectify these problems while providing additional wildlife habitat, wildlife viewing, and public recreation opportunities.
Jones Edmunds was selected to provide design, permitting, and construction administration; wetland assessments and mapping; wetland jurisdictional line determination; mitigation plan and design; site evaluation; Phase I, II, and III EA; environmental sample collection and analyses; and contamination assessment. Two primary goals were addressed by the Sheetflow Restoration Project. Goal Number 1 was to satisfy the nitrogen-load reductions from the Main Street Water Reclamation Facility and urban stormwater to Sweetwater Branch as part of the TMDL requirements for the Alachua Sink. Goal Number 2 was to restore the rehydration mechanisms of Paynes Prairie to their natural condition.
The design entailed developing detailed site grading plans for a project footprint of over 250 acres and more than 1 million cubic yards of combined excavation and embankment. Jones Edmunds achieved a balanced site; earthwork cut and fill needs were equaled, so no fill material had to be imported or exported. Jones Edmunds also coordinated the architectural designs and electrical and mechanical system designs associated with the three on-site buildings, and the project included low-impact development stormwater controls. Extensive hydrologic and hydraulic modeling was performed to develop tools for the design and operation of stormwater conveyance, wetland treatment system, and sheetflow restoration.
Today, the public has direct access to enjoy the restored Prairie’s natural beauty and wildlife by visiting Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Shaped like the head of an alligator, the park consists of more than 125 acres of wetlands and ponds and is now a thriving habitat filled with plants and animals, including birds, butterflies, alligators, wild Florida cracker horses, and buffalo. There are 3.5 miles of walking trails, boardwalks, and elevated berms integrated throughout the stormwater treatment mechanisms. Other public amenities include a Visitors Center, a security residence and classroom facilities (all with associated utility services), educational signs and guided tours, and numerous shade pavilions and viewing towers.
According to the report on the first five years of operation that was required for permits to build the park, Sweetwater Wetlands Park is meeting its goal of restoring the water quality of the surrounding wetlands and natural flow into Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. The system of ponds and vegetation is successfully trapping sediments and reducing nutrients from stormwater runoff and Gainesville Regional Utilities’ Main Street Water Reclamation Facility before it enters the Floridan aquifer. Read more on the project update in The Gainesville Sun.