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The Water Channel

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Restoring the Pieces of the Peace River

Central Florida's Peace River is in trouble. A long history of agriculture, mining and development combined with drought have caused the river to run dry. DEP and water managers are working to restore the Peace River watershed.

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Wetlands Restoration Helps the Upper Peace River

Innovative wetlands restoration and protection projects are taking place statewide including the Upper Peace River watershed.

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Learn about Florida-Friendly Landscaping Techniques

Fertilizers and pesticides used on residential and commercial landscapes are harming Florida's waterways. Find out how you can reduce your impact in your front and back yards.

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Learn About Your Watershed

Charlotte Harbor Watershed

Image of The palm-fringed Cayo Costa State Park is on an undeveloped barrier island that separates Charlotte Harbor from the Gulf of Mexico.
The palm-fringed Cayo Costa State Park is on an undeveloped barrier island that separates Charlotte Harbor from the Gulf of Mexico. Russell Sparkman

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: 857 square miles

Major Towns:
Punta Gorda, Cape Coral, Sanibel, Englewood, South Venice, and Venice Gardens

Counties: Charlotte, Lee, and Sarasota

Major Water Features: Lemon Bay; Godfrey, Rock, Oyster, and Buck Creeks; Placida Harbor; Coral Creek; Charlotte Harbor Proper; Gasparilla Sound; Pine Island Sound; Tarpon Bay; Island Creek; Sanibel River; San Carlos Bay; Matlacha Pass; and Gator Slough Canal

Overview

Image of Charlotte Harbor is recognized as Florida's healthiest estuary and a world-class sportfishing destination.
Charlotte Harbor is recognized as Florida's healthiest estuary and a world-class sportfishing destination. Russell Sparkman

Charlotte Harbor, in southwest Florida, is a semi-enclosed body of water open to the Gulf of Mexico through several tidal inlets. The harbor is America's 17th largest estuary and Florida's 2nd largest open-water estuary, with an open-water surface area of about 270 square miles and an average depth of seven feet. The harbor and its adjacent estuaries make up one of the most pristine and productive coastal ecosystems in the state of Florida. The harbor, which comprises Lemon Bay, Charlotte Harbor Proper, and Pine Island Sound, receives fresh water from three major rivers (Peace, Myakka, and Caloosahatchee) and several smaller streams that mix with the marine waters of the Gulf. Depending on the season, location, and depth in the harbor, salinity can range from zero to full-strength seawater.

The region is home to five national wildlife refuges, five state aquatic preserves, and one state buffer preserve. It supports a great diversity of semitropical plant and animal life. In 1995, Charlotte Harbor was recognized as an estuary of national significance and was accepted into the National Estuary Program. A remarkable feature of the region is that nearly all the wetlands surrounding the harbor are designated as state buffer preserves and are publicly owned. The following significant conservation areas found within or adjacent to the basin: Amberjack Slough Environmental Park (178 acres), Cayo Costa State Park (1,655 acres), Cape Haze Aquatic Preserve (11,284 acres), Cedar Point Preserve (88 acres), Charlotte Flatwoods Environmental Park (486 acres), Charlotte Harbor State Buffer Preserve/Cape Coral Unit (7,951 acres), Charlotte Harbor State Buffer Preserve/Cape Haze Unit (20,343 acres), Charlotte Harbor State Buffer Preserve/Pine Island Unit (6,474 acres), Charlotte Harbor State Buffer Preserve/Punta Gorda Unit (5,572 acres), Don Pedro Island State Park (132 acres), Gasparilla Sound/Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserve (79,168 acres), Gasparilla Island State Park (144 acres), Island Bay National Wildlife Refuge (20 acres), J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge (5,550 acres), Lemon Bay Aquatic Preserve (7,667 acres), Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve (12,511 acres), Matlacha Pass National Wildlife Refuge (512 acres), Oyster Creek Environmental Park (135 acres), Pine Island National Wildlife Refuge (548 acres), Pine Island Sound Aquatic Preserve (54,176 acres), Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Lands (1,800+ acres), and Stump Pass State Park (245 acres).

Human Impacts

Image of Pollutants from many sources including fertilizers used on residential lawns threaten the health of Charlotte Harbor Estuary.
Pollutants from many sources including fertilizers used on residential lawns threaten the health of Charlotte Harbor Estuary. Russell Sparkman

There are two main ecological issues in Charlotte Harbor proper. First, freshwater inflows to the harbor have been altered because of ground water over-pumping for irrigation and drinking water. Second, pollutants are being introduced from urban, industrial, and agricultural sources and from the harbor's tributaries, especially the Peace and Myakka Rivers. Of particular concern is Lake Hancock, a highly polluted lake at the headwaters of the Peace River that discharges nitrogen- and algae-laden water into Charlotte Harbor. Excessive nutrients (especially nitrogen) can stimulate the growth of algae, resulting in low oxygen levels that can cause fish kills. While the deeper waters of Charlotte Harbor may already be naturally hypoxic, the addition of nutrients and algae from upstream sources can only exacerbate the situation.

Although the lower portion of Charlotte Harbor occasionally suffers from reduced freshwater inflows, it is also periodically deluged with excess levels of nutrient-laden fresh water from urban and upstream agricultural canals that cause algal blooms and reduce dissolved oxygen levels. Of particular concern are flood control discharges from Lake Okeechobee via the Caloosahatchee River, which bring not only large quantities of fresh water, but also nutrients and algae into the southern portion of Charlotte Harbor. Submerged aquatic vegetation, oyster reef coverage, and bay scallop populations have been drastically harmed by these sudden, extreme salinity fluctuations and associated turbidity.

In the Lemon Bay area, the most urbanized portion of the Charlotte Harbor Basin, the development of residential communities has replaced many wetlands and marshes with open-water canals and filled uplands. Ecological concerns include the effects of boat traffic and dredging on the Intracoastal Waterway, the existence of dynamically unstable tidal inlets, the retention of mangrove stands, the protection of seagrass beds, and the growth of nuisance exotic vegetation. In deeper areas of the bay, nutrients from septic systems and stormwater runoff can cause algal blooms that reduce water clarity and cause seagrasses to die back.

In the Pine Island Sound area, the Cape Coral waterways directly influence the quantity and quality of freshwater inflow to Matlacha Pass and San Carlos Bay. Periodically, large freshwater releases from the Caloosahatchee River, caused by agricultural activities, adversely affect seagrasses, oyster beds, and other plants and animals. The development of residential communities and the presence of large areas of undeveloped lots have eliminated a significant portion of the area's wetlands and marshes by conversion into open-water canals and filled uplands.

In recognition of these impacts, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), and local governmental, scientific, educational, and citizen organizations are working to develop strategies for protecting and restoring water quality and quantity in the Charlotte Harbor Basin.

Interesting Facts:

  • Charlotte Harbor is one of Florida's most popular sport fishing destinations and is home to one of the world's largest tarpon fishing tournaments.
  • The American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) is found in the waters of Pine Island Sound, the farthest point north that the species has been observed.
  • Florida currently provides about 75 percent of the nation's phosphate supply and about 25 percent of the world's supply. Most of that phosphate comes from the Bone Valley deposit of more than 500,000 acres, which principally lies in the Peace River watershed, which in turn drains to Charlotte Harbor.
  • The impacts of phosphate mining and chemical processing are of significant concern, especially to the downstream residents in Charlotte County, whose water supply (the Peace River) is directly affected by poor quality water occasionally discharged from mines and processing plants.
  • Red tides are common in the Gulf of Mexico-Charlotte Harbor region. A particularly widespread red tide event was thought to be responsible for massive manatee mortality in 1996 in Charlotte, Lee, and Sarasota Counties, with 142 manatee deaths recorded.
  • The land sales development that began in the 1950s dramatically and permanently changed the character and use of the region. The land was subdivided, canals were dug, and streets were paved. The platting removed thousands of acres from agricultural and other productive uses years in advance of when the land would actually be needed for housing. Many of the platted lots and streets still lie empty and overgrown.
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