Blue Heron Groves
Hidden beneath Florida’s lush green forests, rolling farmlands and urban landscapes is one of the world’s most productive aquifers. The thick, limestone Floridan aquifer runs the length of the entire state beneath several hundred feet of sediment. It serves as the state’s principal water supply and is the lifeblood of Florida agriculture. But water from the aquifer close to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts is sometimes not usable due to its high salt content. In these areas, communities depend on other shallow aquifers and surface water resources to supply their fresh water; agriculture must dig deep for its supply.
Garvie Hall has been in agriculture since 1957. When his company, Blue Heron Groves, purchased land in 1990 for a new citrus grove, he knew from experience that irrigating 660 acres of orange trees in Charlotte County would be a challenge. Always proactive in sharing technology and scientific information that would further the citrus industry, Hall worked closely with the Southwest Florida Water Management District on the project. After drilling test wells to determine the site’s water quality, the newly established Citrus Creek Grove implemented an irrigation system that included a series of canals, in addition to wells running 500 to 600 feet deep.
Farmers in Southwest Florida are not permitted to pump water from the region’s shallow aquifer. Instead, they are required to drill deep wells -- typically 500 to 1,200 feet -- to draw ground water from the Floridan aquifer. Because of its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, this water sometimes has higher saline levels.
Farmers who utilize water with a higher salt content must irrigate at greater-than-normal rates in order to sufficiently hydrate and nourish their plants. While this forces these growers to pump additional deep-well water for grove irrigation, the better-quality water of the shallow aquifer is saved as a non-agricultural public water supply.
Many wells in this area are fine for irrigation, but experience has shown that when poor-quality irrigation water is used, subsequent drainage into water sources like Prairie and Shell creeks increases the salinity of the water supply of the nearby city of Punta Gorda.
As with all groves, the wells of Citrus Creek were regularly self-monitored for the water management district. In the mid 1990s, Citrus Creek’s monitoring stations began to detect some increase in the salinity of four of the farm’s 11 wells. Realizing that the quality of nearly one-third of his wells was deteriorating, Hall began thinking about different sources of water.
He had an idea that he could use the drainage canal system at Citrus Creek Grove to store rain water and grove drainage water for irrigation. Hall took the initiative and hired a consultant to formulate a detailed plan. After gaining approval for the project by the water management district, Blue Heron Groves -- in a cooperative venture with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Southwest Florida Water Management District -- worked together to develop a long-term solution that could improve the irrigation systems at Citrus Creek and of many other citrus groves.
By implementing the plan, Citrus Creek Grove would change its approach to irrigation. It stopped pumping four of its 11 wells. Instead, the network of ditches and canals that was dug when the grove was established was modified with a system of culverts and risers.
“The culverts themselves raise the water level in the grove to about 2 1/2 feet below the surface so the roots can get at it slightly but not so high that it limits their growth,” Hall said.
To ensure that the root zone wouldn’t be over-saturated, 30 water-level monitoring wells were installed throughout the grove.
Citrus Creek also utilized the 10-foot drop in elevation that runs from the south end of the property to the north. Powerful pumps at the north end of the grove move filtered water through irrigation pipelines directly to the trees through water-saving microjets.
Blue Heron Groves, along with the rest of the citrus industry, uses improved management practices for pesticides and fertilizers. Slow-release, high-quality fertilizer makes for more effective applications. These practices not only reduce the amount of pesticide and nutrients used in the grove, they allow for the better timing and scheduling of applications, and result in less leaching into the soil.
Thanks to its innovative upgrades, Citrus Creek Grove has become a long-term sustainable grove -- a precursor of future grove irrigation and surface water reuse design. The project was a costly undertaking. But the $200,000 expense was actually a sound investment.
“The changes we’ve made to this operation are essential to the profitability of Citrus Creek Grove,” Hall said. “We found that this really worked economically because we did not have to use as much fuel in our pumping. Also, because we were using better quality water which was more beneficial to the trees.”
In fact, through its improved irrigation system, millions of gallons of water are saved each year. And, the availability of good-quality water helps the grove optimize its yields.
Through its partnership with the district, Blue Heron Groves has helped improve the water quality of its grove, thus reducing its impact on the city of Punta Gorda’s reservoir. Through his efforts, Garvie Hall has demonstrated the beneficial balance that effectively serves the needs of agriculture, local communities, and the environment.