By Katrina Vaitkus
The Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) is an extremely environmentally sensitive area that loses approximately half an inch of soil every year. In this area, sugarcane and vegetable rotations are extremely prevalent, and unlike the rest of southern Florida, most of the soils are organic/muck soils. Here, irrigation water management plans are crucial for maintaining crop and soil subsidence, as well as reducing runoff. The Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) plays a major role in assisting producers in both writing and implementing these plans.
Thanks to a 2018 NACD Technical Assistance Grant, the district was able to bring on professional engineer Ramon Santiago as a full-time Land Management Manager. For one year, Santiago assisted the NRCS field office in developing irrigation water management plans for producers throughout the area.
However, writing these plans was no simple task. Santiago worked with the producers to consider factors such as weather, irrigation methods, system conditions, crops and more. The plans he created taught the growers when to turn on/off their water pumps, what level to keep their water at, where to set water elevations to retain or release water, and how to adjust the system to the crops’ needs.
Santiago was also able to evaluate the producers’ systems to ensure they were working as they should and give suggestions on system improvement, helping some producers update their system by replacing structures that were falling apart.
Santiago also helped producers receive funding for the implementation of Best Management Practices (BMP) through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other entities. “The TA grant allowed our office to assist growers by completing the BMP details needed in order to conclude the project,” said Laura Bloom, Palm Beach SWCD Director.
The irrigation systems that were designed and installed helped producers keep phosphorus on their farms, instead of running off the field and/or leaching into groundwater. “We’re helping them run their farms in a good, safe and efficient manner, which will both benefit their agricultural operation and keep Florida’s waterways clean,” Santiago said.
“Through the NACD grant given to Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District, the office was able to write irrigation water management plans, and at the same time, talk to farmers about the importance of proper water management,” said Rosa Reyes, NRCS District Conservationist. “The grant allowed our field office to expand our outreach to farmers and other land users.”