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Mapping the Road to Watershed Restoration

DEP is coordinating a massive, statewide watershed restoration effort, which focuses on reducing pollutants in Florida's rivers, lakes and streams. In the Ocklawaha River watershed, pollution reduction goals are already being met.

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Learn About Your Watershed

Ocklawaha River Watershed

Image of A storm threatens over Payne's Prairie
A storm threatens over Payne's Prairie Anthony Rue

Watershed and River Basin Stats

Size of Basin: 2,769 square miles

Major Cities and Towns: Gainesville (Orange Creek Basin), Ocala (Lower Ocklawaha Basin), Leesburg, Tavares, Mt. Dora, Eustis, Clermont, Groveland, Ocoee, Winter Garden, Apopka, Lady Lake, Umatilla, and Fruitland Park (all in the Upper Ocklawaha River watershed).

Counties: Most of the watershed is contained within Lake, Alachua, and Marion Counties. Parts of Orange, Polk, and Putnam Counties are also within the Ocklawaha River watershed.

Major Water Features:
Lake Apopka and the Palatlakaha River/Green Swamp and Lake Lowery (including the Clermont Chain of Lakes: Minneola, Minnehaha, Cherry, and Louisa) form the headwaters of the Ocklawaha River. Lake Apopka discharges through the Apopka-Beauclair Canal to Lake Beauclair, and the Palatlakaha River discharges to Lake Harris. Water moves from the headwaters through the Harris Chain of Lakes (Lake Harris, Dead River, Lake Beauclair, Lake Dora, Dora Canal, Lake Eustis, Lake Yale, Lake Yale Canal, Haynes Creek, and Lake Griffin) before discharging to the Ocklawaha River proper at Moss Bluff. The Ocklawaha River flows north, receiving large inputs of ground water from Silver Springs via the Silver River and surface water from the Orange Creek tributary sub-basin (including Sweetwater Branch, Tumblin Creek, Hogtown Creek, Hatchett Creek, Alachua Sink, Lochloosa Lake, Orange Lake, and Newnans Lake). As part of the construction of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal, dams were built near Eureka and near the mouth (Kirkpatrick Dam) of the river to form the Rodman Reservoir.

Overview

Image of Paddling on the spring-fed Silver River which provides much of Ocklawaha River's flow.
Paddling on the spring-fed Silver River which provides much of Ocklawaha River's flow. © Norm Taylor

The Ocklawaha River watershed covers 2,769 square miles from the Green Swamp in Polk County and Lake Apopka sub-basins north through the Rodman Reservoir to the river's discharge into the St. Johns River near the town of Welaka. Along the way the river receives water from Silver Springs via Silver River and Orange Creek. It is the largest tributary watershed of the St. Johns River.

Because of the watershed's hydrologic and sociopolitical structure and for ease of administration, DEP has subdivided the watershed into the Upper Ocklawaha River, Lower Ocklawaha River, and Orange Creek sub-basins.

Image of The main spring at Silver Springs, which forms the headwaters of the Silver River, a major tributary of the Ocklawaha River.
The main spring at Silver Springs, which forms the headwaters of the Silver River, a major tributary of the Ocklawaha River. © Harley Means, FGS

The Ocklawaha River watershed is made up of two hydrologically distinct parts. The Ocklawaha River and its associated lakes and tributaries occupy the eastern half and northern portion of the watershed, comprising a defined, connected surface drainage pattern. Chains of large connected lakes and wetlands are prominent surface features. Interstate 75 approximates the western boundary of the surface drainage system.

Silver Springs provides on average about half of the discharge of the Ocklawaha River.

The surface drainage system of the Ocklawaha River watershed begins from two sources: the Green Swamp and Lake Lowery near Haines City and the Lake Apopka basin. Four other river basins share the Green Swamp as their headwater: Hillsborough, Withlacoochee, Peace, and Kissimmee. This part of the watershed has distinct drainage basins, including, from south to north, Lake Apopka, Palatlakaha River and Clermont Chain of Lakes, Harris Chain of Lakes, Ocklawaha River, and Orange Creek. Discharges and water levels are regulated for the Ocklawaha River and most of the large, connected lake chains. The Ocklawaha River proper emerges out of Lake Griffin in the Upper Ocklawaha Chain of Lakes and flows north until it is impounded as Rodman Reservoir, also known as Lake Ocklawaha. Before joining the St. Johns River near Welaka, the river travels about 96 miles.

Image of Cypress trees line the shoreline of a property on Lake Minnehaha, which is part of the Clermont chain of lakes.
Cypress trees line the shoreline of a property on Lake Minnehaha, which is part of the Clermont chain of lakes. © Russell Sparkman

The area west of Interstate 75, the Florida Ridge, is the second hydrologic part of the watershed. It is largely an internally drained area with little developed, connected surface hydrography, but rather, a well-developed ground water or subsurface flow system. Primary discharge points for ground water are Silver Springs to the Ocklawaha River and Rainbow Springs to the Withlacoochee River.

Human Impacts

The Ocklawaha River watershed has a long history of use dating back to the earliest settlements of the Timucuan Indians. With the arrival of European colonists, the watershed provided commercial transportation, agricultural and domestic water supplies, and recreation. By the late 1880s, the development of tourism, agriculture, and commerce was well under way.

Navigation was an important early function of the Ocklawaha River. Steamboats transported citrus, lumber, sea island cotton, sugar, and other agricultural commodities to ports on the St. Johns River. They also brought tourists and helped make the watershed a tourist mecca by the late 19th century. Navigation still plays a role today, but it primarily supports recreational use of the river.

Image of In this 1995 photo, a boat crosses the heavily polluted Lake Apopka. Decades of agriculture left Apopka burdened with high phosphorous levels and the designation as Florida's most polluted lake. While water quality has improved since then, restoration efforts continue today.
In this 1995 photo, a boat crosses the heavily polluted Lake Apopka. Decades of agriculture left Apopka burdened with high phosphorous levels and the designation as Florida's most polluted lake. While water quality has improved since then, restoration efforts continue today. © SJRWMD

While agriculture and navigation contributed to the watershed's economic growth, they also required significant modification of its hydrology and natural systems. Along with urbanization and direct discharges of wastewater, many of these modifications contributed to declines in water quality, impacts to fish and wildlife, and the loss of natural system function; they are now the targets of extensive restoration efforts.

Water control projects were undertaken primarily to accommodate agricultural expansion, but also to allow navigation and later to provide flood control for the protection of farms and houses by managing and stabilizing lake water levels. The construction of water control structures and canals and the channelization of the Ocklawaha River began in the 1880s. Several congressional authorizations of the Rivers and Harbors Act between the late 1800s and early 1900s allowed for the dredging and deepening of the Ocklawaha River channel. The present configuration of control structures (see the figure) was achieved in 1974 with the completion of the Four River Basins Project. Authorized in 1962 under the Flood Control Act, this project created larger structures and deepened the river channel to provide flood protection and solve water control problems.

As early as 1826, government surveys evaluated the feasibility of constructing a canal across Florida to provide a transportation route between the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Interest in the canal was rekindled during World War II, when German submarines became a potential threat to American shipping. Construction on the canal started in 1964. The project included the construction of Rodman Reservoir and the Kirkpatrick and Eureka Dams. These structures were completed before President Richard Nixon halted the project in 1971 because of environmental concerns. The Cross-Florida Barge Canal was fully deauthorized in 1991, and the former canal lands became the Cross-Florida Greenway. The removal of the dams and restoration of the river continue to be a contentious issue.

Tens of thousands of acres of wetlands around lakes in the watershed were drained and converted to farms in the early 1900s.

Image of Tens of thousands of acres of wetlands were drained around lakes during large-scale muck farming in the 1940s and 1950s. The rich farmlands created by wetland drainage were actually lower than adjacent water bodies and periodically required pumping water from the farmlands to adjacent water bodies. Unfortunately, the effluent carried excess nutrients from fertilizers, sediments, and pesticides and contributed to the decline in water quality. Pictured here is the Lake Apopka-Beauclair Canal where phosphorous-laden water flows north from Lake Apopka through the Lower Ocklawaha River watershed.
Tens of thousands of acres of wetlands were drained around lakes during large-scale muck farming in the 1940s and 1950s. The rich farmlands created by wetland drainage were actually lower than adjacent water bodies and periodically required pumping water from the farmlands to adjacent water bodies. Unfortunately, the effluent carried excess nutrients from fertilizers, sediments, and pesticides and contributed to the decline in water quality. Pictured here is the Lake Apopka-Beauclair Canal where phosphorous-laden water flows north from Lake Apopka through the Lower Ocklawaha River watershed. © Lake County Water Authority

Historically, large expanses of wetlands throughout the watershed were viewed as lands that could be made useful by draining them for agriculture. The earliest attempts at draining wetlands took place in the 1880s and 1890s with the construction of the Apopka-Beauclair Canal, which connected Lake Apopka through Lake Beauclair with the Harris Chain of Lakes.

Muck farms were created by the drainage of wetlands around Lakes Apopka, Harris, Griffin, Minneola, and Orange, and the Ocklawaha River (see figure). In 1925, a lock and dam were constructed on the Ocklawaha River at Moss Bluff to regulate water levels in the river and Lake Griffin. An additional 6,500 acres of the expansive sawgrass marshes north of Lake Griffin (part of Emeralda Marsh) and wetlands adjacent to Lakes Harris and Minneola were also converted to muck farms. In southern Alachua County, Shands Dike was constructed in the 1930s on the eastern side of Orange Lake to isolate wetlands and drain them for agricultural use.

Large-scale muck farming began in the 1940s and 1950s, with the first nutrient-rich discharges from Lake Apopka muck farms in 1942. Apopka-Beauclair Lock and Dam were constructed in 1956 to control the level of Lake Apopka. Burrell Lock and Dam were constructed in the 1950s on Haynes Creek to stabilize water levels in Lakes Eustis, Dora, Beauclair, and Harris, in order to provide optimum levels for agricultural water supply and improve navigation.

The rich farmlands created by wetland drainage were actually lower than adjacent waterbodies and periodically required pumping water from the farmlands to adjacent waterbodies. Unfortunately, the effluent carried excess nutrients, sediments, and pesticides and contributed to the decline in water quality in the receiving waters for many years. Algal blooms became a common occurrence in Lake Apopka and the Harris Chain of Lakes. Within a chain of lakes, water quality problems that occur in one lake can be easily transferred to the other lakes. Pollutant Load Reduction Goals (PLRGs) developed by the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) and Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) developed by DEP are addressing the nutrient loading reductions needed to restore the lakes.

Around 1916 or 1917, under pressure from farming interests, the U.S. Congress approved draining parts of the Ocklawaha River floodplain to create 5,700 acres of muck farms. The river's channel from Starkes Ferry to the Moss Bluff Lock and Dam was abandoned and flow was directed to the J.D. Young Canal, or C-231 Canal. A second stretch of river north of Moss Bluff was also diverted to the C-231 Canal. In total, more than 15 miles of river channel were abandoned to create Sunnyhill and Ocklawaha Farms.

In recognition of these impacts, DEP, the SJRWMD, and local governmental, scientific, educational, and citizen organizations are working to develop strategies for protecting and restoring water quality and quantity in the Ocklawaha watershed.


Interesting Facts:

Upper Ocklawaha Basin

  • The Lake Apopka sub-basin hosts the Zellwood Sweet Corn Festival each year. Sweet corn was one of the agricultural products produced on muck farms.
  • Lake Apopka is Florida's 5th largest lake, followed by Lake Griffin as the 9th largest, and Lake Harris as the 11th largest.
  • The Green Swamp is able to store surface water. The high potentiometric surface for ground water and shallow depth to water helps ground water recharge in the area.
  • Four rivers originate from the Green Swamp: Hillsborough, Peace, Withlacoochee, and Ocklawaha.
  • The word Ocklawaha may be a corruption of "ak-lowahe," the Creek Indian word for muddy.
  • The Ocklawaha is one of only a few rivers in the United States that flows south to north.


Lower Ocklawaha Basin

  • Marion County horse farms are home to winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Breeder's Cup. The 600 horse farms in the county represent one of four thoroughbred breeding centers worldwide.
  • Silver Springs, a first-magnitude spring located east of Ocala, provides on average about half of the discharge of the Ocklawaha River.
  • From the late 1800s to the 1920s, steamboats were a common sight on the river. They were used to transport oranges, cotton, timber, and other commodities to markets, and to bring tourists to view the river and to visit Silver Springs.
  • The Cross-Florida Barge Canal is now the Cross-Florida Greenway, a part of Florida's greenways and trails system managed by DEP.
  • The Ocklawaha River, which was designated a state Aquatic Preserve in 1989, includes almost 20 miles of the Ocklawaha River, much of which is also designated an Outstanding Florida Water.


Orange Creek Basin

  • Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park was the state's first preserve and is a National Natural Landmark. It is located just south of Gainesville between Interstate 75 and U.S. Highway 441.
  • Lochloosa and Orange Lake are designated Outstanding Florida Waters.
  • Lochloosa, Newnans, and Orange Lakes support large colonies of bald eagles second in size in Florida only to Lake George.


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