Discover Florida's Freshwater Springs

Image of Ichetucknee Spring near Ft. White is one of many springs that contribute to the Suwannee River's flow.

Florida is blessed with one of the largest concentrations of freshwater springs in the world. These amazing ecosystems provide habitat for manatees and many other unique species as well as recreational opportunities for residents and visitors. They also provide a unique glimpse into the health of our aquifer.

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Springs Coast Watershed Excursion

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Take a Virtual Trip Through the Springs Coast Basin

Learn what makes the Springs Coast watershed special. (SWFWMD)

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Florida-Friendly Interactive Yard

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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

Springs Coast Watershed

Image of Crystal River is the largest natural wintertime habitat for manatees on the Florida Gulf Coast
Crystal River is the largest natural wintertime habitat for manatees on the Florida Gulf Coast USGS

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: about 1,052 square miles, or 673,000 acres, plus an estuarine ecosystem that covers approximately 97,911 acres

Major Cities and Towns:
Port Richey, New Port Richey, Weeki Wachee, Brooksville, Crystal River, Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor, Dunedin, Clearwater, Largo, and Gulfport

Counties: Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, and Pinellas Counties

Major Water Features:
Crystal River, Kings Bay, Homosassa Springs, Chassahowitzka Springs, Weeki Wachee Spring, Anclote River, and Pithlachascotee River, their springs, and associated coastal aquatic resources

Overview

Image of Kayakers explore Three Sisters Springs on King's Bay at Crystal River. Kings Bay contains a cluster of more than 30 individual springs.
Kayakers explore Three Sisters Springs on King's Bay at Crystal River. Kings Bay contains a cluster of more than 30 individual springs. Norm Taylor

The Springs Coast watershed encompasses parts of Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, and Pinellas Counties in west-central Florida. It is bounded on the west by the Gulf of Mexico and on the east by the Brooksville Ridge, a sandy remnant of previous higher sea levels that is characterized by porous limestone geology, with wetlands in low-lying areas and scattered sinkhole lakes.

The watershed covers about 1,052 square miles, not including an estuarine ecosystem that extends in a nearly unbroken swath along the entire shoreline. The estuary's bays, rivers, salt marshes, seagrass meadows, oyster bars, and tidal flats cover approximately 15 percent of the total watershed area.

The six major rivers in the watershed-Crystal, Homosassa, Chassahowitzka, Weeki Wachee, Anclote, and Pithlachascotee-their springs, and their associated coastal aquatic resources are dominant features. The watershed contains four major spring complexes, which occur because of the region's karst geology. A spring complex is a group of springs, often spread out over several square miles. The springs are recharged mainly by rainfall. Tidal fluctuations affect all the springs, except for Weeki Wachee.

Image of A member of the staff a Homosassa Springs State Park presents an educational program for park visitors. Ryan Jones
A member of the staff a Homosassa Springs State Park presents an educational program for park visitors. Ryan Jones Ryan Jones

The coastline along the basin's western edge is heavily vegetated, and low elevation creates flooding even during moderate storms. The coast contains numerous tidal creeks and salt marshes, as well as isolated islands fringed with mangroves. There are very few natural sandy beaches.

The northern portion of the watershed functions like an estuary, with its shallow waters, abundant freshwater flows, and low-energy shoreline. Seagrass beds cover almost the entire nearshore area along the northern portion of the watershed, and extensive oyster reefs are also present.

Barrier islands parallel the Gulf coast from southern Pasco County southward to Tampa Bay. These create sheltered, open saltwater areas and associated shallow-water features such as salt marshes, beaches, seagrass meadows, and tidal flats.

In the Springs Coast watershed, the nearshore estuarine area covers about 996 acres. Although this region is a defining surface water feature in the watershed, its significance far exceeds its size. It provides essential habitat for numerous fish and wildlife species, including nursery and juvenile habitats for many recreational and commercial fish species. The economic value of commercial seafood harvests on Florida's west coast consists of at least 95 percent estuary-dependent species.

Four major springs areas discharge some 900 million gallons of water each day into the watershed's rivers, streams and estuaries.

Of the 194,500 acres in the watershed dedicated to parks and conservation areas, approximately three-fourths are sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. Highway 19. Conservation lands include the following:

Image of Mermaids have delighted crowds at Weeki Wachee Springs since the 1940s. The State of Florida recently acquired Weeki Wachee Springs to make it part of the state park system.
Mermaids have delighted crowds at Weeki Wachee Springs since the 1940s. The State of Florida recently acquired Weeki Wachee Springs to make it part of the state park system.
  • The Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1931, comprises 31,000 acres of shallow saltwater bays, estuaries, brackish marshes, and tidal streams, with a fringe of hardwood swamps. It is accessible only by boat.
  • The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge comprises 20 islands and several small parcels of land. Six hundred million gallons of fresh water flow daily from more than 30 natural springs in the refuge. The springs are a natural warmwater refuge for the endangered West Indian manatee and provide critical habitat for the Crystal River herd, which makes up about 25 percent of the United State's manatee population.
  • Anclote Key Preserve State Park is the northernmost barrier island in the watershed. Just to the east of Anclote Key lies Anclote Anchorage, a shallow area containing seagrass beds that provides breeding habitat for numerous marine species. The Anclote National Wildlife Refuge encompasses the waters between Anclote Key and the mainland. South of Anclote Anchorage is the Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve.
  • Honeymoon Island State Park, Honeymoon Island State Recreation Area, and Caladesi Island State Park contain important coastal plant communities. Honeymoon Island contains one of the few remaining south Florida stands of virgin slash pine, which provides osprey nesting sites.
  • Starkey Wilderness Park, an 8,069-acre tract, encompasses a portion of the headwaters of the Anclote River and a stretch of the Pithlachascotee River.
  • Weeki Wachee Preserve contains the southernmost coastal hardwood hammock in western Florida.


Additionally, waterbodies in the basin that have been given additional protection through designation as Outstanding Florida Waters (OFWs) include Crystal River and Kings Bay, Chassahowitzka River, Crab Creek, Cabbage Creek, Baird Creek, Salt Creek, Potter Creek, Crawford Creek, Blue Run, Ryle Creek, May Creek, Chub Creek, Blind Creek, Weeki Wachee River, and Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve.


Human Impacts

Image of While the beauty of the region's springs draws visitors from around the world, heavy development in Crystal River and along King's Bay has resulted in degraded water quality from stormwater runoff and pollution from wastewater treatment and septic systems.
While the beauty of the region's springs draws visitors from around the world, heavy development in Crystal River and along King's Bay has resulted in degraded water quality from stormwater runoff and pollution from wastewater treatment and septic systems. Arni Guobjort

Despite a great deal of growth in the last 30 years, Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco Counties- which mostly comprise coastal swamps, dense woodlands, lakes, and pastures-have retained their rural character but are rapidly changing. Agriculture was the historical economic base, but residential growth, the decreasing profitability of farming, and freezes affecting the citrus industry have had a dramatic effect. Today, these counties' economies predominantly comprise retail trade, services, government, and construction. However, a significant portion of Hernando County's economy is still based on industry, mining, cattle, and agriculture.

The population of the four counties in the watershed (Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, and Pinellas) was almost 1.02 million in 1980. By 1998, it had risen to more than 1.45 million, and by 2020 is projected to grow to more than 1.8 million. There is also a large influx of seasonal residents during the winter months.

Beginning in the 1920s, numerous waterfront areas in Pinellas County, including Clearwater Harbor and Boca Ciega Bay, were filled for residential and commercial development and contain extensive seawalls. From 1950 to 1965, about 20 percent of the surface area of Boca Ciega Bay was filled. Most aquatic systems in these areas have deep channels that restrict seagrass growth, and water quality is typically poor. The adjoining areas are also highly urbanized, with Pinellas County having the largest population per acre in the state.

There are appoximately 140 active wastewater treatment facilities in the vicinity of the Crystal, Homosassa, Chassahowitzka, Weeki Wachee, and Aripeka Spring Complexes.

Impacts to water quality in the watershed include approximately 140 active wastewater treatment facilities in the vicinity of the Crystal, Homosassa, Chassahowitzka, Weeki Wachee, and Aripeka Spring Complexes. Additionally, areas that impact both surface water quality and ground water quality in the watershed include a federal Superfund site, two state Waste Cleanup Program sites, two state brownfield sites, 77 state Dry Cleaning Solvent Cleanup Program sites, more than 1,600 petroleum contamination monitoring sites, and eight delineated areas of ground water contamination.

In recognition of these impacts, DEP, 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 Springs Coast watershed.

Interesting Facts:

  • Since 2001, Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge has provided wintertime habitat for a successful whooping crane reintroduction project.
  • A sinkhole located in the northern part of Crews Lake, the largest lake in the watershed, is directly connected to the underlying Floridan aquifer. During very dry years, the lake has completely drained through the sinkhole.
  • The four major spring areas in the watershed discharge approximately 900 million gallons per day from the Floridan aquifer system.
  • The Crystal River/Kings Bay system, the fourth largest of the 33 first-magnitude springs in Florida, contains a cluster of at least 30 springs.
  • St. Joseph Sound, which lies to the east of Honeymoon and Caladesi Islands, contains about 14,700 acres of seagrasses, or about 60 percent of the total seagrass acreage found in Tampa Bay.
  • Collectively, in 1999 the counties of the Springs Coast watershed generated almost 20,000 fishing trips and landed over 5.1 million pounds of seafood.
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