The Vero Producers Wetlands Reserve Easement (WRE) project was part of a larger effort to develop the Wetland Reserve Plan of Operation (WRPO) for two separate privately owned parcels of land in Florida by the Aterra-Schnabel JV and Kleinfelder in 2018–2019. The primary effort was directed toward restoring native, wetland communities by modifying the existing agricultural drainage systems to mimic historic hydrology.

The JV team and Kleinfelder worked closely on each component of project development from the response to the request for proposals to project kickoff and through design and permitting. Kleinfelder ecologists Ed Murawski and Jason Hunt reviewed pre-disturbance historical aerial photography, soil maps, and topography data to determine desired post-restoration ecological communities and their extents. Kleinfelder’s Tim Desmarais, PE, performed hydrologic modeling to evaluate depth and duration of representative wetlands proposed to be restored within the WRPOs. The ICPR4 model software was used to obtain the wetlands inundation duration and depth. Kleinfelder modeled the successive storm events: three-year, one-day; 25-year, one-day; 25-year, three-day; and 100-year, one-day to obtain peak discharges and stages in the WRE. In addition, continuous simulations were performed to obtain the water elevation and duration for pre-restoration condition and two post-restoration alternatives.

In close coordination with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff and Aterra-Schnabel JV engineers, Kleinfelder clearly defined all assumptions and approaches made during the model development. Model development methodology included historical data, terrain data, watershed evaluation, hydrological and hydraulic parameterization, and boundary conditions. All input/output files and associated maps and diagrams used to create the hydraulic and hydrologic models, along with model results, were submitted as part of the WRPO. Based upon the results of the modeling, Kleinfelder’s ecologist then updated the post-restoration ecological communities based upon the restored site hydrology and proposed topography.

The WRPO also included the development of a habitat management plan to provide key management guidelines needed to accomplish and sustain the restoration effort. Restoration of wetland functions and values emphasized improving habitat for wetland-dependent wildlife, including wading and migratory birds, waterfowl, and threatened and endangered species.

Aterra-Schnabel JV engineers used the modeling results and the proposed conceptual plans outlined in the WRPO to develop preliminary and final construction drawings for the WRE project. The proposed design included the raising of the existing dike and the construction of a new perimeter dike, ditch plugs, grading and land smoothing, and design of a water control structure. The JV team coordinated the proposed design features with NRCS, adjusting the design, where appropriate, based on feedback from NRCS and the landowner. Stability and seepage analyses were performed for the perimeter dike. The deliverables included the operation and maintenance manual, quality assurance plan, stormwater management plan, construction and material specifications, engineer’s opinion of probable construction cost, and design report. Initial cost estimates revealed estimated construction costs higher than the cost of the easement. The JV team, based on discussions with NRCS, proposed a plan to optimize wetland restoration conditions and reduce construction costs below the cost of the easement.

As part of the WRPO, Kleinfelder facilitated the procurement of all necessary environmental permits required to conduct the wetland restoration activities. These types of projects are generally exempt from state permitting pursuant to Florida Statute (F.S.) Title XXVIII Chapter 373.406 – Water Resources Exemptions established for lands classified as agricultural and for activities requiring an ERP. Under 373.406(9), exemption from regulation may be approved for the implementation of measures having the primary purpose of environmental restoration or water quality improvement on agricultural lands where the measures are determined to have minimal individual and cumulative adverse impact on water resources. In this case, there was an existing permit (water use permit) associated with the project area, and therefore the South Florida Water Management District required NRCS to modify those permits to include the proposed restoration project.

Coordination with USACE was required and the wetland restoration activities were authorized via Nationwide 27 Permit (NWP-27) Aquatic Habitat Restoration, Establishment, and Enhancement Activities, which authorizes activities associated with the restoration, enhancement, and establishment of wetlands provided those activities result in net increases in aquatic resource.