An estimated $100 million pipeline to transfer water from the Black Creek into Alligator Creek to refill lakes in Keystone Heights is set to begin construction in August following setbacks and criticism from environmentalists.
The idea behind this project is to restore the aquifer in Keystone Heights that suffers from low water levels by diverting water from the Black Creek, which has been known to flood. The project that started in 2017 will divert up to 10 million gallons of water per day from the Black Creek during wet weather and periods of high water flow, according to the St. Johns River Water Management District. The project would also help refill drought-affected lakes in the area. This decision has been met with controversy from some environmental advocates who fear this project may harm the Black Creek's surrounding wetlands and threaten native species.
The permitting for the project made it a "lengthy process," said Bob Naleway, bureau chief at St. Johns River Water Management District. The project is out for bid on the pump station portion of the project, Naleway said. The pipeline will start near Penney Farms and run through Camp Blanding, and he believes the construction process will take about two years.
The project, run by the St. Johns River Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and funded by St. Johns River and Keystone Heights Lake Region Projects legislative appropriations, will help refill Lake Brooklyn and Lake Geneva, which are low on water. Advocates for the project cite this as a solution to Black Creek's flooding.
A setback to this plan came because Black Creek has a different color and higher phosphorus levels than the water systems it is meant to recharge. The project now requires the water to go through a treatment facility before the Black Creek's water can be transferred to Keystone Heights, which added to the project's cost.
Paul Still, president of the Bradford Environmental Forum, has criticized the project, believing it could harm the ecology of the Black Creek and that it is not the most cost-effective solution. After submitting a request for a public hearing on the project to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in November 2018, Still's request was denied in May 2022.
"I think that it's pretty irresponsible for the Army Corp of Engineers to not hold a meeting because this could benefit from a real thorough hearing of what the issues are for Black Creek," said Still. "For some reason, they're really only focused on the issue of salinity in the Black Creek where the Black Creek enters the St. Johns River. That's not where there would be any impacts. The impacts would be within two miles of where they're taking out the water."
Still said he worries about how this project will affect the Black Creek's surrounding wetlands and native species.
The Black Creek is home to the Black Creek Crawfish, a threatened species and a Florida Species of Greatest Conservation Need, according to Carli Segelson, spokesperson from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"The crayfish has been found historically near the proposed intake site but was not observed when FWC staff performed updated surveys in 2018," said Segelson in an email.
Segelson said the project should have "little concern of direct impact to the species" because mesh nets will cover the intake sites of the pipeline so that the crawfish won't get sucked into the pipeline.
"I think they're dismissing the impacts on that endangered species. The Florida Fish and Wildlife, they're kind of only looking at what would happen if the crawfish got sucked up into the system," said Still. "They're not looking at the potential impact of lowering the water level on the habitat for the crawfish."
Advocates for the project say that the water levels in the Black Creek won't be significantly affected because water will only be taken when the creek has high water levels.
"The pumping rate from Black Creek will vary depending on the flow in Black Creek and the elevation of Lake Brooklyn to protect the Black Creek ecosystem and prevent flooding around Lake Brooklyn," wrote the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a letter responding to Still's request for a public hearing.
"Black Creek is a very flashy system. Water can come up quickly during a storm event," said Naleway. "Water is available there, and there is a need in the Keystone Lakes area."