EAST MANATEE — Little by little over the past decade, the Southwest Florida Water Management District has been forging agreements with farms around the Flatford Swamp to protect the wetlands north of Myakka City, a part of the headwaters of the Myakka River.
The district recently announced it is working with Four Star Tomato to reduce groundwater pumping by 50 percent on its 1,240-acre Long Creek Farm in East Manatee.
Not only would the project conserve a precious resource, it would help stop seepage into the Upper Myakka watershed, improving natural systems functions in Flatford Swamp, according to the water management district.
More than a decade ago, Flatford Swamp suffered a huge tree die-off, which some attributed to agricultural runoff, the Herald previously reported.
The new project is expected to cost $250,000 — 75 percent of which would be paid for by governmental agencies. The farm would pick up the tab for the rest.
Bruce Shackleford, president of Four Star Tomato, said his company has grown tomatoes at Long Creek Farm since acquiring the property in the mid 1980s.
“We will be able to retain and reuse more water,” Shackleford said of the project, which is still in the design phase.
The project is part of the district’s Facilitating Agricultural Resource Management Systems (FARMS) program, which is a cost-sharing, reimbursement program to conserve water and protect water quality.
Culverts with risers would be constructed at Long Creek Farm to retain storm water and “tailwater” in six retention areas, according to the district.
Tailwater is that which fails to soak into the ground during irrigation.
More than a mile of drainage pipe would be installed and an automatically operated pump station constructed. Excess water would be collected in retention areas and reused for irrigation.
“This is one of those projects that really is a win-win situation — it helps the grower sustain production while helping to improve the condition of the water resource,” said Bill Orendorff, the District’s FARMS program manager, in a district press release.
The project qualifies for a 75 percent cost-share reimbursement because it is expected to reduce withdrawals from the Upper Floridan aquifer and improve functions in the watershed.
Bruce Worth, deputy executive director of the district, said Wednesday other projects have been undertaken with Falkner Farms and Pacific Tomato to protect the swamp.
Previously, water was getting into the swamp at times of the year when it should have been virtually dry, Worth said.
Plants which “needed to dry their feet out at least during a small window” in April and May were dying because of too much water, Worth said.
With recent heavy rains, the Myakka River has overflowed its banks.
That water doesn’t harm the swamp, and it’s normal because the Myakka River is one of the flatest riverine systems in the state, Worth said.
“It doesn’t take a whole bunch for it to expand far beyond the existing banks,” Worth said.
When the district acquired the Flatford Swamp, it was envisioned that it would be left in its natural state and not developed as a recreational area, although it is open to the public, Worth said.