The Water Channel

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Protecting and restoring Florida's wetlands

From the Everglades to the Panhandle innovative wetlands restoration and protection projects are taking place.

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The Water Channel

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Stemming the Flow of Stormwater Pollution

Polluted stormwater runoff is the major threat to Florida's river, lakes and estuaries. Find out how DEP is working with local governments to help clean up stormwater runoff.

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Learn About Your Watershed

Indian River Lagoon Watershed

Image of Mosquito Lagoon is part of the Indian River Lagoon system, North America's most diverse estuary.
Mosquito Lagoon is part of the Indian River Lagoon system, North America's most diverse estuary. John Emerson

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: 155 square miles

Major Cities and Towns: New Smyrna Beach, Titusville, Cocoa, Rockledge, Merritt Island, Melbourne, Palm Bay, Sebastian, Vero Beach, Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, Satellite Beach, Indian Harbour Beach, Indialantic, and Melbourne Beach

Counties: Fifty percent of the watershed lies within Brevard County, and smaller areas lie within Volusia and Indian River Counties

Major Water Features: Ponce de Leon Inlet, Jupiter Inlet, Mosquito Lagoon, Indian River Lagoon, Banana River, and St. Lucie River and Estuary

Overview

Image of Tidal creek marshes along the Indian River Lagoon provide important habitat for fish and wildlife.
Tidal creek marshes along the Indian River Lagoon provide important habitat for fish and wildlife.

The Indian River Lagoon (IRL) watershed's land features date back to 420,000 years ago, shaped by the rise and fall of the sea. The basin's major waterbodies are three elongated saline lagoons: Mosquito Lagoon, the Indian River Lagoon, and the Banana River. These lagoons separate mainland Florida from a strip of barrier islands that extends north and south of two unique land features, Cape Canaveral and Merritt Island.

Image of The red mangrove is essential to the health of Indian River Lagoon, providing habitat for juvenile fish and stablizing the lagoon shoreline.
The red mangrove is essential to the health of Indian River Lagoon, providing habitat for juvenile fish and stablizing the lagoon shoreline.

The IRL watershed is an important economic and biological resource within Florida. More than 50 percent of the Florida east coast fish catch and historically 90 percent of Florida's clam harvest came from the basin (although clam harvests have declined in recent years). The basin is also an important producer of Florida's Indian River citrus. Biological diversity is high, with more than 4,000 animal and plant species recorded, including 36 rare and endangered animal species.

The IRL is North America's most diverse estuary, with more than 2,200 different species of animals and 2,100 species of plants.


Space exploration and the military have a prominent presence. Kennedy Space Center is located on north Merritt Island. The large tracts of land needed for security and spaceport facilities resulted in the acquisition of 140,000 acres of beaches, dunes, flatwoods, wetlands, and marshes for the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The military maintains bases at Patrick Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Force Base. Much of the industry in the Brevard County portion of the basin provides support for space exploration and military operations.

Growth in the basin, like much of Florida, has accelerated tremendously since the 1950s. The expansion of tourism, the space industry, and agriculture helped fuel growth. Since 1950, the combined population of Volusia, Brevard, and Indian River counties has increased from well under 200,000 people to about one million people. The population continues to grow and is projected to be about 1.4 million in 2020.

Human Impacts

Image of Establishment of the space program at the Kennedy Space Center in the early 1960s led to explosive growth along the Indian River Lagoon, bringing prosperity but also negatively impacting water quality in the lagoon system.
Establishment of the space program at the Kennedy Space Center in the early 1960s led to explosive growth along the Indian River Lagoon, bringing prosperity but also negatively impacting water quality in the lagoon system. Ian

The settlement of the IRL watershed and surrounding areas in the 1840s led to changes in the hydrology of the IRL system. In 1916, the system received drainage from about 572,000 acres. Today it receives drainage from 1.4 million acres. Much of this expansion was caused by draining parts of the Lake Okeechobee and upper St. Johns River watersheds for agriculture and development and diverting large quantities of fresh water to the IRL Basin via the C-1 and C-54 canals.

The 1916 Drainage Acts of Florida created special taxing districts to promote agriculture and provide flood and drainage control. A large part of the drainage activities performed from 1916 to 1950 modified almost all natural streams and interconnected lagoons within the IRL wateshed through the construction of canals. In addition, increased impervious surface area in the IRL watershed has contributed to increased stormwater runoff to the IRL system. All of these factors act to alter the timing and volume of stormwater releases to the lagoon system. About twice as much freshwater enters the IRL system compared with 100 years ago. A substantial amount of the stormwater volume is discharged in the first few hours after a storm event.

Additional drainage canals were dug to accommodate urban expansion and mosquito control. About 75 percent of the watershed's salt marshes, including those in the southern part of the IRL in Martin and St. Lucie Counties, have been impounded for mosquito control, reducing or eliminating their connection with the open waters of the lagoon system. North of Cape Canaveral, a 140-mile network of drainage ditches was dug specifically for drainage to control mosquitoes.

Image of The waters of the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County are critical habitat for the endangered Florida manatee . Brevard County also has the highest number of manatee deaths, including the highest number of watercraft-related manatee mortalities, of any county in the State.
The waters of the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County are critical habitat for the endangered Florida manatee . Brevard County also has the highest number of manatee deaths, including the highest number of watercraft-related manatee mortalities, of any county in the State.

The Intracoastal Waterway was built to create a deepwater channel for navigation. The channel is maintained to a depth of 12 feet north of Fort Pierce and 10 feet south of Fort Pierce. The construction and dredging process has changed the way water flows in the lagoon, and dredged material from the channel has been used to create spoil islands.

The construction of various causeways over the lagoon system has narrowed the open-water area, affecting lagoon water circulation, which is sluggish and mostly wind driven. Limited tidal flushing with the Atlantic Ocean and the long, narrow, and shallow nature of the lagoon system makes the lagoon system vulnerable to pollutants.

In recognition of these impacts, DEP, the St. John's River Water Management District (SJRWMD), and local governmental, scientific, educational, and citizen organizations are working to develop strategies for protecting and restoring water quality and quantity in the Indian River Lagoon watershed.

Interesting Facts:

  • The IRL is North America's most diverse estuary, with more than 2,200 different species of animals and 2,100 species of plants.
  • The IRL has 11 Outstanding Florida Waters (OFWs), including Canaveral National Seashore, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Archie Carr Wildlife Refuge.
  • The IRL varies in width from half a mile to five miles and averages only three feet in depth.
  • The IRL serves as a spawning and nursery ground for many different species of oceanic and lagoon fish and shellfish.
  • The lagoon also has one of the most diverse bird populations anywhere in America.
  • Nearly one-third of the nation's manatee population lives here or migrates through the IRL seasonally.
  • The lagoon's ocean beaches provide one of the densest sea turtle-nesting areas found in the western hemisphere.
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