$48 million project moves forward after SJRWMD, four utilities reach agreement

Residents eager for Black Creek Water Resource Development Project to pump new life in Keystone lakes

By Wesley LeBlanc wesley@opcfla.com
Posted 7/21/21

KEYSTONE HEIGHTS – Now that the St. Johns Water Management District governing board has approved participation agreements with four North Florida Utility Coordination Group members, residents and …

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$48 million project moves forward after SJRWMD, four utilities reach agreement

Residents eager for Black Creek Water Resource Development Project to pump new life in Keystone lakes

Posted

KEYSTONE HEIGHTS – Now that the St. Johns Water Management District governing board has approved participation agreements with four North Florida Utility Coordination Group members, residents and region officials are eager for the Black Creek Water Resource Development Project to begin.

The plan is to pump filtered water from Black Creek to the depleted lakes region.

SJWMD’s governing board approved participation agreements with the Clay County Utility Authority, Gainesville Regional Utilities, Jacksonville Electric Authority and St. Johns County Utility and they consider these agreements a “positive step forward in advancing the Black Creek Project and addressing the low water issues with Lakes Brooklyn and Geneva in Keystone Heights.”

Former Save Our Lakes Organization president, Vivian Katz, said the four utility groups signing this agreement was a long time coming, especially because they weren’t initially behind the project.

“There was a legal challenge that was set...so the City of Keystone Heights, Save Our Lakes and the Lake Region Development Corporation decided to stand up and say, ‘we’re going to answer their challenge,’ and I don’t know the legal term for this, but we basically filed an answer to their challenge.”

Katz said utility companies often have conditions in their contracts that require a recovery effort when draining bodies of water. For Lakes Brooklyn and Geneva, in this instance, she said, and the utilities knew the shoe was soon to drop.

“Now, they could do their own project but they’re not required to necessarily do this project,” Katz said. “They tried to say they were coerced, but they agreed because...it wasn’t coercion – they knew this was their best option. They couldn’t have done anything better.

“This was one of the final barriers...but now the revitalization is coming. They’re looking to get shovels in the ground by January. It’s very exciting. It’s been decades...people since the 1980s have known that something was wrong.”

The project will take overflow water from Black Creek, deliver it to the Camp Blanding-area water purification site before it’s delivered to Alligator Creek, which drains into the lakes. It’s a $48 million project and when completed, $43.4 million of that will have been funded by the State of Florida with another $5 million funded by SJRWMD.

“It’s a cooperative and collaborative project with the State of Florida, the water management district, water uses and water lovers throughout Northeast Florida,” SJRWMD executive director Dr. Ann Shortelle said.

She said the project will increase the water levels of the lake which in turn will naturally recharge the water aquifer. This will eventually return the Keystone Heights lakes back to their original water levels – the water levels that drove the county’s ecotourism and put Keystone Heights on the map.

“My family has lived on Lake Brooklyn for over 70 years and my parents still live there today so the Keystone lakes are very important to my heritage and my family, as well as the heritage of the entire area,” Commissioner Betsy Condon, who represents Keystone Heights, said. “It will take flood-stage water from Black Creek and put it through a filter process that will bring water back to the Keystone lakes. It will improve property values and our quality of life.”

Condon said she’s excited for people to once again enjoy recreation on the lakes. She said it will further beautify the already beautiful Keystone Heights.

Former Keystone Heights mayor Tony Brown has lived in the area for 57 years. He said the lakes were full when he was a child, and he remembers swimming underneath a pier that now stands six feet over a beach that lake water used to cover.

“The Black Water project is, I feel, the best solution for our water issues we have here in our lakes,” Brown said. “It’s not going to rain enough to fill our lakes. We need this water to rejuvenate our lakes in Keystone.”

Katz said as early as the late 1970s, people began to realize something was going on with the water levels of the Keystone Heights lakes. She said it’s a multi-faceted problem, too. The Florida Aquifer has two major recharge areas and the Keystone Heights lakes were one of them.

“When it’s drying down, it says it’s being over-pumped,” Katz said. “This is our drinking water. When you think about these lakes,...you wouldn’t even understand what these lakes were like and the ecotourism here. The community was founded on these lakes. They dried up and so did our ecotourism and the community has suffered because of that.”

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