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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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Ocklawaha River Watershed
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Florida Department of Envrironmental Protection, along with the St. Johns River Water Management District, Lake County Water Authority, Lake County Public Works, Marion County Clean Water Program, and other local governmental, scientific, educational, and citizen organizations are working on numerous projects to restore and protect the Ocklawaha River watershed.
Watershed Restoration Program
DEP has implemented a Watershed Restoration Program to identify "impaired" waters, identify sources of pollutants, and develop plans to reduce pollution in rivers, lakes, and streams in the Ocklawaha watershed. Pollution reduction targets known as Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) have been adopted for Lakes Apopka, Harris, Beauclair, Dora, Trout, Carlton, Eustis, Yale, and Griffin, as well as the Palatlakaha River. These include connecting canals and streams such as Haynes Creek, Dead River, Dora Canal, and Lake Yale Canal.
TMDLs for the Orange Creek Basin
Within the basin, DEP has adopted fecal coliform bacteria TMDLs for Sweetwater Branch, Tumblin Creek, and Hogtown Creek and an iron TMDL for Hatchet Creek. Nutrient TMDLs have been adopted for Newnans Lake, Orange Lake, Lake Wauberg, and Alachua Sink.
DEP TMDL Program Website
Upper Ocklawaha River Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) and Supporting Document
A BMAP and supporting document were developed to address nutrient-related water quality impairments in the Upper Ocklawaha River Basin lakes. The BMAP was adopted by Secretarial Order in August 2007. It describes the activities ongoing in the Upper Ocklawaha River Basin that will improve water quality by the implementation of TMDLs. The plan adopts management actions that will reduce the loadings of total phosphorus into Lake Apopka, the Palatlakaha River, and the Harris Chain of Lakes. A Basin Working Group composed of local, state, and regional governments, private citizens, business, and environmental interests was assembled in 2004 to help develop the BMAP. The working group held its first post-adoption meeting on February 13, 2008, to discuss new projects and additional steps to be taken to reduce loadings.
Upper Ocklawaha BMAP
Orange Creek BMAP and Supporting Document
In May 2008, a BMAP and supporting document were completed for the Orange Creek Basin to address high fecal coliform bacteria and nutrient levels. The BMAP describes the activities ongoing in the Orange Creek Basin that will improve water quality by the implementation of TMDLs. The plan adopts management actions that will reduce the loadings of nutrients to Lake Wauberg, Orange Lake, Newnans Lake, and Alachua Sink, and the loadings of fecal coliform bacteria into Hogtown Creek, Tumblin Creek, and Sweetwater Branch. A Basin Working Group composed of local, state, and regional governments, private citizens, business, and environmental interests was assembled in 2004 to help develop the BMAP.
Orange Creek BMAP (PDF)
Lake County Public Works Basin Studies
Lake County has taken a proactive approach toward TMDLs by concentrating its efforts on stormwater retrofits in the Upper Ocklawaha River Basin. Studies for two other basins are completed and five are currently in progress. These studies will help in the design of cost-effective projects to manage stormwater and reduce total phosphorus loads to impaired waters requiring the development of TMDLs.
Lake County Public Works Department
Lake Apopka Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) Plan
The 1987 SWIM Act listed the lake as a priority waterbody in need of restoration; the Lake Apopka SWIM Plan for restoring the lake was published in 1989 and updated in 1993 and 2003. The lake's problems include nutrient-rich agricultural discharges, a lack of fish and wildlife habitat, poor water quality and flocculent sediments, the degradation of downstream lakes, nonpoint source pollution, and low recreational and esthetic values. The SJRWMD, which oversees the program, is working with federal, state, and local government and the private sector to restore this damaged ecosystem, prevent and remediate pollution, and educate the public.
Lake County Nutrient Reduction Facility (NuRF) Project
This $7.272 million cooperative effort by the Lake County Water Authority (LCWA), SJRWMD, and DEP will use off-line alum injection to remove pollutants flowing out of Lake Apopka into the rest of the Harris Chain of Lakes. The discharge from the lake is the single largest source of controllable pollution in Lake County. Construction on the project began in 2007 and is scheduled to continue through 2009. The project will further treat water released from Lake Apopka and help to achieve TMDL goals for Lakes Beauclair, Dora, Eustis, and Griffin.
Marion County Clean Water Program
Through its Clean Water Program, and with assistance from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), the county is implementing a countywide Watershed Management Plan (over a two- to three-year cycle) that will be used to identify water quality and flooding problems and determine corrective actions.
Marion County Clean Water Program Website
Orange Creek Basin SWIM Program
In 1993, Orange Creek was added to the SWIM priority list of waterbodies needing restoration. The goal of the program is to restore and maintain healthy aquatic and wetland habitats in the basin's three largest lakes (Newnans, Orange, and Lochloosa) and Paynes Prairie. Water quality and aquatic and wetland habitats in these lakes have declined over the past century due to development. The SJRWMD, which oversees the program, is working with federal, state, and local government and the private sector to restore these damaged waterbodies, prevent pollution from runoff and other sources, and educate the public.
SJRWMD Orange Creek Basin Website
Polk County Land Acquisition Program
In 1994, Polk County voters approved the creation of a land acquisition program, funded by ad valorem taxes, to pursue the preservation and protection of environmentally sensitive lands in the county. To date, the county has acquired 2,700 acres through joint acquisition partnerships with the Florida Communities Trust and the SWFWMD.
Upper Ocklawaha River SWIM Plan
The Upper Ocklawaha River SWIM Plan was last updated in 1995. The primary restoration effort focuses on reducing nutrients and other pollutants in stormwater that flows into surface waters, reducing the recycling of nutrients by harvesting gizzard shad, reestablishing more natural water level fluctuations and flows, and restoring aquatic and wetland habitats at former "muck" farms. The SJRWMD, which oversees the program, is working with federal, state, and local government and the private sector to restore this damaged ecosystem, prevent pollution from runoff and other sources, and educate the public.
SJRWMD Upper Ocklawaha River Basin Website
Florida-Friendly Landscaping Education
DEP has supported educational efforts to encourage landscape maintenance companies and citizens to adopt Florida-friendly landscaping practices, which minimize use of fertilizers and reduce water consumption.
Florida-Friendly Landscaping Website
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Map Note: Map shows watershed boundary of the Oklawaha River.
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Florida Department of Environmental Protection
Bureau of Watershed Management
Mary Paulic, Basin Coordinator
Phone: (850) 245-8560
Contact for: Information on TMDL development and implementation
Central District Office (Upper Ocklawaha)
Christine Ferraro, Program Administrator
Phone: (407) 894-7555
Contact for: Information on water quality sampling and watershed restoration activities in the Central District
Northeast District Office (Orange Creek)
Jeff Martin, Professional Engineer III
Phone: (904) 807-3300
Contact for: Information on water quality sampling and watershed restoration activities in the Northeast District
Local Government and Water Resource Agencies
- Florida Department of Agriculture, Office of Agricultural Water Policy
- Florida's Springs: Protecting Nature's Gems
- Lake County Water Atlas
- Lake County Water Authority
- Marion County Clean Water Program
- Orange County Water Atlas
- Polk County Environmental Lands Program
- Polk County Growth Management Department
- Polk County Water Atlas
- Southwest Florida Water Management District
- St. Johns River Water Management District
Citizen Stakeholder and Watershed Organizations
- Florida Defenders of the Environment
- Florida Forestry Association
- Friends of Lake Apopka
- Harris Chain of Lakes Restoration Countil
- Lake County Conservation Council
- Ocklawaha Valley Audubon Society
- Silver Springs Basin Working Group
- Sustainable Alachua County
- Suwannee-St. Johns Sierra Club
- Watershed Action Volunteers
- Women for Wise Growth
Parks and Conservation Areas
- Devils Millhopper Geological State Park
- Lake Griffin State Park
- Lake Louisa State Park
- Ocala National Forest
- Ocklawaha River Aquatic Preserve
- Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
- Silver River State Park
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