In coastal areas, waters from rivers flow into bays, lagoons and estuaries brimming with biological diversity. Maintaining this diversity is a key part of maintaining the health of Florida's ecological systems and future resources.
South Florida's coastal systems support spiny lobster, shrimp, blue crab, oyster, spotted sea trout, stone crab and many other marine and freshwater species of commercial and recreational interest. Coastal ecosystems are especially vulnerable to harmful impacts because they attract intense human development, making these areas prone to habitat loss and changes that can alter the very nature of natural systems.
The South Florida Water Management District's goal is to manage stormwater flows to rivers and freshwater discharge to South Florida's estuaries in a way that preserves, protects and, where possible, restores these essential resources. We work in partnership with federal, local and other state governments to, within the system's limitations, ensure that rivers and estuaries receive not only the right amount of water at the right time but also clean, high-quality water.
Coastal ecosystems associated with South Florida watersheds include the southern reaches of the Indian River Lagoon, the Savannas, the Atlantic Ridge, the St. Lucie River and estuary, the Loxahatchee River and estuary, the West Jupiter Wetlands, the Lake Worth Lagoon, Biscayne Bay, Florida Bay, the Florida Keys, the Caloosahatchee River and estuary, Estero Bay and Charlotte Harbor.
Many of these coastal ecosystems are interconnected. Projects to restore or protect one part of the system will have benefits for those areas connected to it, whether upstream or downstream. For example, on Florida's west coast, the Caloosahatchee River and estuary and Estero Bay, Charlotte Harbor and San Carlos Bay are interdependent systems. The Caloosahatchee also receives flows from Lake Okeechobee, so projects targeting the lake have impacts on its tributaries. On the east coast, the St. Lucie River and estuary and the Indian River Lagoon as well as Lake Okeechobee are closely tied ecosystems.
In addition, the state-federal partnership to restore the Greater Everglades includes projects and initiatives that will benefit most coastal resources. Other projects to acquire lands, to reserve water supplies for natural systems or to plan for current and future water supply also have impacts on Florida's coastal watersheds.
The Atlantic Ridge Coastal Ecosystem covers 12,300 acres across extensive upland and wetland systems in Martin County, between U.S. 1 and Interstate 95. Habitats include pine flatwoods, forested sloughs and coastal scrub, a rare biological community. Wetland systems here provide a source of groundwater base flow for the North Fork of the St. Lucie River and South Fork of the St. Lucie River plus aquifer recharge to coastal Martin County. more »
Intensive residential and agricultural development is growing along the perimeter of the Atlantic Ridge Coastal Ecosystem, and cattle-grazing continues in the central area. The northwestern and southern ends of the ecosystem are connected by a system of ditches. Weirs installed by the South Florida Water Management District keep some water in the wetlands. Plugging the ditches to force water back onto the surrounding wetlands is being studied as a restoration alternative.
Biscayne Bay is a subtropical estuary that includes 428 square miles of marine ecosystem and 938 square miles of watershed along the coast of Miami-Dade and northeastern Monroe counties. Many rare, threatened and endangered species live in this ecosystem, including manatees and American Crocodiles. more »
Biscayne Bay shows increasing signs of distress, including declines in fisheries, increased pollution and dramatic changes in nearshore vegetation. Intensive development of the watershed has altered the natural cycle of freshwater inflows to the bay. Northern and central Biscayne Bay are strongly affected by urban development. Southern Biscayne Bay is influenced by drainage from the Everglades, which has been altered by canals and agricultural activities. The opening of inlets and further channelization has contributed to the bay's transition from a freshwater estuary to a marine lagoon.
Today, the bay is a pulsed system that alternates between marine conditions and extreme low salinity near the discharges of 19 major canals. Scientists have observed changes in fish diversity and abundance, with a shift over time towards marine species.
Restoration and preservation of Biscayne Bay and Biscayne National Park are dependent on a comprehensive understanding of the linkages between the hydrologic system and the bay ecosystem. It is also important to understand the impact of internal and external influences on the system.
Caloosahatchee River and Estuary and San Carlos Bay
The Caloosahatchee River and Estuary extend about 70 miles west from Lake Okeechobee into San Carlos Bay on Florida's southwest coast. Significant natural system resources within the Caloosahatchee River watershed include Pine Island Sound, Matlacha Pass, Charlotte Harbor aquatic preserves and Telegraph Swamp. more »
The integrity of riverine and estuarine ecosystems is dependent on water quality. As water quality diminishes, so does the overall quality of the system. Water quality within the Caloosahatchee River basin is threatened by altered freshwater inputs, nutrient loads from agricultural activities, urban growth and development within the watershed and trace elements. Major issues affecting the Caloosahatchee River watershed are water supply availability, Caloosahatchee River salinity variations and Caloosahatchee River nutrient levels.
These issues are being addressed through many initiatives and programs including:
Continuing District water quality monitoring within the Caloosahatchee River through contracts with local and state agencies.
Continuing implementation of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).
Assessing the influence of freshwater inflow and salinity of submerged aquatic plants to determine freshwater inflow requirements needed for a thriving ecosystem in the upper portions of the Caloosahatchee Estuary.
Establishing minimum flows and levels (MFLs) for Lake Okeechobee toward limiting large regulatory releases and uncontrolled runoff to the Caloosahatchee River.
Conducting research to characterize seasonal fluctuations of submerged aquatic vegetation in the upper and lower Caloosahatchee Estuary, San Carlos Bay and Pine Island Sound.
The Lower Charlotte Harbor covers more than 2,230 square miles in the lower west coast region of Florida, including the Cape Coral and Fort Myers metropolitan areas. Many creeks and rivers contribute flows to form a series of bays, sounds, passes and a natural harbor along the Gulf of Mexico. Major passes from Gasparilla Sound to San Carlos Bay are Little Gasparilla Pass, Boca Grande Pass, Captiva Pass and Blind Pass. Major passes on Estero Bay are Matanzas Pass, Big Carlos Pass, Big Hickory Pass, Little Hickory Pass and Wiggins Pass. more »
The natural hydrology of the Lower Charlotte Harbor Watershed has been altered by the construction of canals, water control structures, drainage ditches, berms, and roads. Impacts to water quality include rapid salinity changes, nutrient pulsing and turbidity. There is also a growing concern that urban development will affect the ecological integrity of the region.
Goals for the Lower Charlotte Harbor Watershed are restoring, protecting and managing the surface water resources of the watershed with periodic public review and input. This approach is outlined in the Lower Charlotte Harbor Watershed Surface Water Improvement and Management Plan.
The Estero Bay Watershed includes central and southern Lee County and parts of northern Collier and western Hendry counties. The principal freshwater inflows come from Hendry Creek, Mullock Creek, Estero River, Spring Creek and the Imperial River. The area is home to a variety of endangered or threatened species including the Florida panther, red-cockaded woodpecker and manatee. The bay includes five rookery islands used by thousands of birds such as brown pelicans, frigate birds, egrets and white herons. more »
Population growth in the Estero Bay Watershed has been rapid. Urban land use in the basin is primarily in the areas around Florida Gulf Coast University, Bonita Springs and western Immokalee. Most agricultural land uses are found in the boundaries of and between large wetland systems within the watershed.
Specific plans, including the Estero Bay Watershed Assessment, have immediate influences on the bay and its watershed. Sponsored by the District, the assessment characterizes existing hydrologic and pollutant loadings in the watershed. It also provides input for evaluating existing and proposed management practices that can reduce nutrient loadings, improve the timing and volume of freshwater inputs and reduce sediment loadings.
Florida Bay is a shallow inner-shelf lagoon between the southern tip of the Florida mainland and the Florida Keys. It is an area where fresh water from the Everglades mixes with the salty waters from the Gulf of Mexico to form an estuary. There are nearly 1,000 square miles of interconnected basins and 200 mangrove islands in the bay and estuary providing habitat for the bottle-nosed dolphin, manatee, American crocodile and many birds. The bay also provides significant ecological, flood control and recreational benefits to the region. more »
Since the 1980s, Florida Bay's ecology has experienced the widespread death of seagrass beds, large and sustained algal blooms, sponge deaths near the Florida Keys and turbid, or cloudy, waters.
The District is focusing on how changing freshwater flow affects the water quality and ecology of Florida Bay. Florida Bay is connected to the Everglades by the flow of freshwater into the bay and the infiltration of salt water into the Everglades. The boundary between these two ecosystems is the salinity transition zone.
Scientists are determining the effect of changing salinity on seagrass communities. They are also studying the effects of increasing freshwater flow on the nutrient inputs and cycles that drive much of the bay's ecology, including occurrence of algae blooms.
The Florida Keys are a chain of islands within Miami-Dade and Monroe counties that extend from the southern tip of the Florida mainland southwest to the Dry Tortugas. Many conservation areas are located within the Keys including Biscayne National Park, several National Wildlife Refuges and the Dry Tortugas National Park. These are all within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. more »
As population and tourism have increased in the Florida Keys, wastewater and stormwater management practices have not kept pace with this growth. Research suggests that this has contributed to significant degradation of water quality in canals and nearshore waters surrounding the Keys.
The District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are participating in the planning, design and construction of several projects to improve water quality in the Florida Keys, including wastewater and stormwater master plans.
The Indian River Lagoon is a series of three distinct, but interconnected, estuarine systems, which extend 156 miles from Ponce Inlet to Jupiter Inlet on Florida's east coast. Approximately 2,200 species have been identified in the lagoon system, with 35 of these species listed as threatened or endangered. The lagoon supports multimillion dollar fishing, clamming, tourism, agricultural and recreational industries. more »
The delicate balance of life in the Indian River Lagoon is threatened by increasing residential and commercial development, industry, agriculture and other human impacts. The combined effects of waste and stormwater runoff, drainage, navigation, loss of essential marshland and agricultural and urban development have severely impacted the lagoon's water, sediment and habitat quality. The lagoon system has lost more than 75 percent of its emergent wetlands, which have isolated marsh and mangrove communities from the lagoon.
Construction of extensive agricultural and urban drainage projects has substantially expanded the watershed of the lagoon. These changes have significantly altered the timing, distribution, quality and volume of fresh water entering the lagoon. Extreme salinity fluctuations and ever-increasing inflows have contributed to major changes in the structure of the communities within the estuary, as seen by seagrass and oyster losses.
Management goals for the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie Estuary are to attain and maintain water and sediment quality to achieve a healthy lagoon system that supports endangered and threatened species, fisheries and recreation.
The Lake Worth Lagoon watershed covers more than 450 square miles that contribute flows to Lake Worth and South Lake Worth in Palm Beach County. Although the region is urbanized, significant regionally important natural resources remain within the lagoon. more »
This area often experiences excess runoff in the wet season and fewer freshwater discharges during the dry season. The lagoon has been subjected to extreme salinity fluctuations as a result of wetland loss, lowered water tables, increased watershed imperviousness and redirected historical runoff.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Palm Beach County formed the Lake Worth Lagoon Ecosystem Management Area team in January 1997. A Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) plan for the Lake Worth Lagoon was developed to identify goals and objectives for restoring the lagoon.
Other projects to improve water quality within the Lake Worth Lagoon include:
Implementing and enforcing regulations to eliminate sewage discharges
Constructing artificial reefs and wetland restoration projects such as Munyon Island and Bird Island
Planning a constructed wetland west of the Village of Wellington to improve water quality
Educate property owners about pollution prevention strategies.
The Loxahatchee River watershed includes the communities of Hobe Sound, Tequesta, Jupiter, Jupiter Island, Jupiter Inlet Colony, Jupiter Farms, Juno Beach and Palm Beach Gardens. This watershed contains large tracts of undisturbed land such as the Atlantic Coastal Ridge and West Jupiter Wetlands (formerly Pal-Mar), plus protected parcels including the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area, Jonathan Dickinson State Park, Loxahatchee Slough Preserve and the Jupiter Ridge Natural Area. It also contains managed agricultural lands and areas impacted by urban and suburban development, including industrial sites. more »
The Loxahatchee River watershed is unique in South Florida for the extent of natural areas that remain intact. Along the Loxahatchee River, Florida's first federally designated "National Wild and Scenic River," coastal sand pine scrub habitat can be found. This is a biological community so rare it is designated "globally imperiled." Other habitat types within the watershed include pinelands, xeric oak scrub, hardwood hammock, freshwater marsh, wet prairie, cypress swamps, mangrove swamps, seagrass beds, tidal flats, oyster beds and coastal dunes. These areas support diverse biological communities including many endangered and potentially endangered species such as the manatee and the four-petal pawpaw, a tree found only in Martin and Palm Beach counties.
Urban development is threatening these diverse habitats. During the last 50 years, flood control, major road construction and dredging have taken their toll on the Loxahatchee River watershed. Some of the negative effects of this development include:
Severed greenway connections, habitat loss and displaced wildlife.
Reduced water storage in some natural areas, flooding in others and degrading water quality due to drainage canals and barriers.
Groundwater at risk of saltwater intrusion.
Degraded water quality due to stormwater runoff from developed areas.
Increased invasive exotic plants.
To improve water quality in the Loxahatchee River and Estuary, the South Florida Water Management District is implementing many plans and initiatives in partnership with other agencies and organizations, including the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Jupiter Inlet District, Loxahatchee River Environmental Control District, Martin County, Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council.
The Savannas State Preserve is a 4,600-acre managed environmental area extending from Fort Pierce to Jensen Beach in St. Lucie and Martin counties. It forms a chain of marshes and lakes that separate the inland pine flatwoods from the coastal scrub on the Atlantic Ridge. The Savannas is also a Florida Forever Program project. more »
The Savannas is one of the most unique and endangered natural systems in South Florida. It is a remnant coastal wetland system, which historically extended along most of the southeast Florida coast. Most of the area remains in its natural state.
The wetlands are highly susceptible to degradation by stormwater flows from urban development. The freshwater aquifer, which underlies the Savannas, is not productive enough for municipal uses. However, the danger of saltwater intrusion is reduced by recharge along the coastal ridge. Wetland communities are still in good condition, so extensive hydrologic restoration does not appear necessary. The Division of Recreation and Parks of the Department of Florida Environmental Protection manages the area as the Savannas State Preserve.
The St. Lucie River and Estuary Ecosystem is an essential component of the environmental and economic well-being of Martin and St. Lucie counties. The St. Lucie River, part of the Indian River Lagoon estuary system, is home to thousands of plant and animal species, including manatees, dolphins, sea turtles and seahorses. more »
The St. Lucie River and Estuary includes the North Fork and South Fork of the St. Lucie River. The South Fork of the St. Lucie River connects with the 152-mile Okeechobee Waterway. As the St. Lucie River's fresh water flows toward the sea and mixes with the ocean's salt water, it becomes the St. Lucie Estuary.
The St. Lucie Estuary ecosystem is threatened by increasing residential and commercial development, industry and agriculture and other human impacts. Construction of extensive agricultural and urban drainage projects has substantially expanded the watershed of the St. Lucie Estuary. These changes have caused significant alterations in the timing, distribution, quality and volume of fresh water entering the estuary.
The estuarine environment is sensitive to freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee. Extreme salinity fluctuations and ever-increasing inflows have contributed to major changes in the structure of the communities within the estuary, as seen by seagrass and oyster losses.
These issues are being addressed through many initiatives and programs including:
West Jupiter Wetlands (formerly known as Pal-Mar) is in northern Palm Beach and southern Martin counties, east of the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area. West Jupiter Wetlands contains the largest contiguous complex of depression marsh, wet flatwoods and natural communities in the two counties. West Jupiter Wetlands is a vast complex of pine flatwoods, wet prairie and depression marsh, and contains the highest quality pine flatwoods in South Florida. more »
The District's objective is to maintain the West Jupiter Wetlands existing ecological quality through land acquisition and by applying land management tools such as regular prescribed fires, exotic plant control and security.
West Jupiter Wetlands is a Florida Forever Program project. Acquisition of the entire project would form an unbroken 125,000-acre greenbelt extending from the DuPuis Reserve near Lake Okeechobee, across the Corbett Wildlife Management Area, and connecting with Jonathan Dickinson State Park. In 1999, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) acquired 7,743 acres, bringing the total acquisition area to more than 10,200 acres. In September 1999, the District Board added 1,310 acres to the project.