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The Story of Water in Florida

Water is Florida's lifeblood. It is fickle. Abundant one year. Scarce another. Yet, everything that is Florida is defined by the quality of its water resources -- and deserves all the protection we can provide.

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Learn About Your Watershed

Lake Worth Lagoon - Palm Beach Coast Watershed

Image of Night view of Blue Heron Bridge over Lake Worth Lagoon.
Night view of Blue Heron Bridge over Lake Worth Lagoon. © Ben McLeod

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: 700 square miles

Major Cities and Towns:
West Palm Beach, Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Royal Palm Beach, Greenacres City, Palm Springs, Lake Clarke Shores, Cloud Lake, Glen Ridge, Haverhill, Palm Beach Gardens, Jupiter, North Palm Beach, Riviera Beach, Lake Park, Mangonia Park, Atlantis, Boynton Beach, Lantana, Highland Beach, Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Deerfield Beach, Lighthouse Point, Hillsboro Beach, Coral Springs, Parkland, and Coconut Creek

Counties: Eighty-five percent of the watershed lies within Palm Beach County, and smaller areas lie within Martin and Broward Counties

Major Water Features: Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AICW); Lake Worth Lagoon; L-8, L-40, C-51, M, E-4, L-14, C-16, and C-17 Canals; Hillsboro Canal; Boynton Canal; Pine Lake; Lake Clarke; Lake Osborne; Lake Ida; Clear Lake; Mangonia Lake; Lake Wyman; and Lake Rogers

Overview

Image of The Grassy Waters Preserve -- also known as the West Palm Beach Water Catchment-- is a 12,000-acre wetland area in the northeastern part of the basin and an extremely significant ecological preserve. It is one of only a few places with the characteristics of a pristine Everglades remnant.
The Grassy Waters Preserve -- also known as the West Palm Beach Water Catchment-- is a 12,000-acre wetland area in the northeastern part of the basin and an extremely significant ecological preserve. It is one of only a few places with the characteristics of a pristine Everglades remnant. © FDEP

The Lake Worth Lagoon-Palm Beach Coast watershed lies on the Atlantic coast of southeastern Florida. Surface waters, including lakes, streams, wetlands, and springs, occupy about 20 percent of the total watershed. The basin includes the eastern portion of Palm Beach County south of the Loxahatchee River Basin, and extends southward to include the Hillsboro Canal watershed of southern Palm Beach County and northern Broward County. It extends from the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) and Water Conservation Area 1 on the western side to the Atlantic Ocean on the eastern side.

Eastern Palm Beach County is densely populated and heavily urbanized. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the area had an average population density of 573 people per square mile, a 31 percent increase from 1990, mostly occurring in the Lake Worth Lagoon-Palm Beach Coast Basin.

Land uses reflect the population density in this area. Over 47 percent of the basin's total area is urban, including residential, commercial and industrial, and recreational uses. Approximately 16 percent of the total area is in agricultural land use, most of which is in field or row crop production, citrus groves, nurseries, or pasture. Less than four percent of the area is covered by wetlands. The estuaries of Palm Beach County consist of a 45-mile long series of shallow, elongated lagoons interconnected by the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AICW). The Lake Worth Lagoon, which is the county's major estuarine resource, is about 20 miles long, up to a half-mile wide, and eight feet deep. The drainage areas immediately surrounding the lagoon and emptying into it, as well as the watersheds that contribute water to the major canals, significantly influence its water quality.

There are two main coral reef systems providing habitat for numerous ecologically and economically significant species, including many that are threatened or endangered.

Image of Kayakers explore the estuary at John D. MacArthur State Park. A unique mixture of coastal and tropical hammock and mangrove forest, this barrier island park provides a haven for several rare or endangered native tropical and coastal plant species.
Kayakers explore the estuary at John D. MacArthur State Park. A unique mixture of coastal and tropical hammock and mangrove forest, this barrier island park provides a haven for several rare or endangered native tropical and coastal plant species. © FDEP

The C-51, C-16, C-17, and C-15 Canals, West Palm Beach Water Catchment area, and Intracoastal watershed are the primary drainage basins for Lake Worth Lagoon and the AICW in this region. A chain of freshwater lakes is located along the western slope of the coastal ridge in the eastern part of the C-15, C-16, and C-51 watersheds. These lakes include Pine Lake, Lake Clarke, Lake Osborne, Lake Ida, Lake Eden, and their connecting waterbody, the E-4 Canal. North of the chain of lakes are two other large freshwater lakes, Clear Lake and Lake Mangonia, that receive water from the West Palm Beach Water Catchment.

There are two main coral reef tracts in the basin. The Southeastern Coast reef system runs from northern Monroe County to Palm Beach County in a series of discontinuous reef lines paralleling the shore. These reefs provide habitat for numerous ecologically and economically significant species, including many that are threatened or endangered. Hard and soft corals, sponges, fish, and algae, along with a multitude of invertebrate species, make up the complex and fragile reef ecosystem. Commercial and recreational species include spiny lobster, grouper, snapper, grunts, and hogfish. All of these reef species and habitats depend on the quality and consistency of the nearshore water.

Human Impacts

The basin includes the coastal ridge and an area to the west that would naturally exist as poorly drained flatwoods and lowlands. Most of the lower southeast coast of Florida is nearly level and was subject to severe flooding prior to the drainage modifications that led to development. Drainage projects significantly altered the region's hydrology and the area's landscape as wetlands were drained, natural drainage features were modified, and land was converted to the urban/residential and agricultural land uses of today. These drainage improvements connected isolated wetland areas and conveyed most of the water eastward to the estuary, resulting in an enlargement of the overall watershed area of the Lake Worth Lagoon and coastal estuary system.

Originally, the Lake Worth Lagoon was an isolated freshwater lagoon. Beginning in the late 19th century, canals were dredged to connect the coastal lagoons and create the AICW for navigational purposes. By 1910, the AICW extended from Jupiter Inlet to Biscayne Bay. Over time, inlets were dredged to improve water circulation in the canal/estuary system and provide access to the Atlantic Ocean. Within the Lake Worth Lagoon, these inlets include the Lake Worth Inlet (Palm Beach Inlet) and the South Lake Worth Inlet (Boynton Inlet).

Currently, the Lake Worth Lagoon is divided between 13 different municipalities, and the area surrounding it is intensively developed. Approximately 65 percent of the lagoon's shoreline is bulkheaded, and only 19 percent of the shoreline remains fringed by mangroves.

Originally, the Lake Worth Lagoon was an isolated freshwater lagoon, but its character changed with the dredging of the Intercoastal Waterway and inlets to the Atlantic Ocean.

Image of Eastern Palm Beach County is one of the most densely populated areas in Florida. Approximately 65 percent of the lagoon's shoreline is bulkheaded, and only 19 percent of the shoreline remains fringed by mangroves.
Eastern Palm Beach County is one of the most densely populated areas in Florida. Approximately 65 percent of the lagoon's shoreline is bulkheaded, and only 19 percent of the shoreline remains fringed by mangroves. ©Sobecreative

By the 1940s, the condition of the lagoon was at its worst. In addition to the massive discharges of fresh water via the canals and local runoff, polluted stormwater and sewage inflows were taking their toll. Some improvements in water quality were realized after sewage discharges were reduced in the 1960s and 1970s, with the passage of more protective wastewater treatment regulations. The water quality and ecology of the Lake Worth Lagoon, however, continue to be adversely affected by the freshwater discharges and associated suspended sediments and nutrient loads.

Multiple algal blooms have occurred in the reef ecosystem of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties since the mid- and late 1990s. These algae are all natural components of the reef ecosystem; however, environmental conditions (possibly nutrients or other anthropogenic alterations) may have caused these otherwise "normal" algae to initiate and sustain an exceedingly abnormal growth or bloom. While the exact cause remains unknown, the situation is made more complex by the diversity of possible nutrient sources to the southeast coastal waters, including atmospheric deposition, oceanic upwelling, reef internal cycling, human wastewater outfall pipes, stormwater/oceanic inlets, and ground water seepage.

In recognition of these impacts, DEP, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), local governmental, scientific, educational, and citizen organizations are working to develop strategies for protecting and restoring water quality and quantity in the Lake Worth Lagoon-Palm Beach Coast Basin.

Interesting Facts:

  • The Lake Worth Lagoon is one of Florida's most valuable ecological resources. It historically contained more than 4,000 acres of seagrasses and provided habitat for numerous species, including over 195 different fish species.
  • Eastern Palm Beach County includes the most heavily developed urban areas of the county and is one of the more heavily urbanized areas in the state.
  • The Grassy Waters Preserve (also known as the West Palm Beach Water Catchment), a 12,000-acre wetland area in the northeastern part of the basin, is an extremely significant and ecologically valuable preserve. It is one of only a few places with the characteristics of a pristine Everglades remnant.
  • Beyond their environmental significance, in 2001, the artificial and natural reef systems of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties contributed $3.8 billion in sales to the local economy, as well as almost 60,000 jobs.
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