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July 20, 2017

FGCU study: Collier wetland park clearly a success

Two-year study at Freedom Park confirming water-filtering effectiveness

When nature gets a chance to do its job, the results can be a beautiful thing. Take, for instance, the potential role of wetlands in preventing smelly, unsightly and potentially toxic algal blooms in the waterways that fuel much of Southwest Florida’s tourism and marine commerce.

As Dr. Bill Mitsch and his team of Florida Gulf Coast University researchers are confirming halfway through a two-year study commissioned by Collier County, Fred W. Coyle Freedom Park in Naples is doing just fine as an urban swamp designed to catch and filter stormwater as it flows toward Naples Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo is of Dr. Bill Mitsch, director of FGCU’s Everglades Wetland Research Park, speaking at Freedom Park in Naples.
Dr. Bill Mitsch, director of FGCU’s Everglades Wetland Research Park, at Freedom Park in Naples with FGCU graduate students Lauren Griffiths and Taylor Nesbit when they first began the two-year study of the wetland complex’s effectiveness in November 2016.

Mitsch, eminent scholar and director of FGCU’s Everglades Wetland Research Park at the Kapnick Center in Naples Botanical Garden, reports that a study he co-authored with FGCU graduate student Lauren Griffiths as part of her master’s thesis this spring is the first documented proof that Freedom Park is a natural success. The study already has been published.

“In November 2016, just as we were starting, we were celebrating the existence of a new collaboration between Collier County and the university with regards to water quality and an aesthetic, ecological ‘wetland park’ that is rare in this country, but not rare in some other countries,” said Mitsch. He notes that Freedom Park is a “knockoff” of the 50-acre wetland park he built and studied in Columbus, Ohio — the Olentangy River Wetland Research Park — during a three-decade career at Ohio State University before he came to FGCU in 2012.

“At the time, we had no data. Now we have published a year’s data, and I think that the results are important.”

In the first-of-its-kind collaboration with Collier County, the FGCU water researchers have dived into the two-year, $50,000 study specifically to monitor the progress and effectiveness of the wetland park in cleaning pollution from urban runoff during the rainy season. They analyze water levels, vegetation and phosphorus and nitrogen content, and will make recommendations moving forward at the conclusion of this initial analysis.

So far, according to Mitsch, this is what the FGCU research team has discovered:

  • This complex — where people can enjoy recreational amenities while exploring an educational facility, walking trails and a boardwalk through restored wetlands — is as efficient today in removing nutrients from urban runoff as when it was built eight years ago.
  • Nitrogen reduction has been low but steady over that time. The nitrate form of nitrogen, which can cause the most problems downstream, is almost completely removed by the wetland park.
  • The park appears to have lost some phosphorus-reduction capacity — not because of any reduction in ecosystem efficiency, but due to lower inflow phosphorus concentrations coming from Naples.
  • Because this wetland system has been working well since it was created from 2007-09, its presence could partially explain why there have not been any harmful algal blooms in Naples Bay for the past decade.

Phosphorus is usually the cause of harmful algal blooms in freshwater systems such as the upper Gordon River and any freshwater lakes and ponds in the region. Nitrogen is usually the cause of harmful algal blooms in saltwater systems such as Naples Bay and the Gulf.

Called “potentially one of the great wetland parks in the United States” by Mitsch when the collaboration was first announced, Freedom Park basically works by collecting stormwater inflow at a 5-acre catch pond and, through gravity, filtering that water through three separate wetland areas before recycling it to the Gordon River. The 50-acre complex at Golden Gate Parkway and Goodlette-Frank Road includes restored bottomland forests closer to the Gordon River, in addition to the treatment pond and wetlands.

Map of Freedom Park