Image of St Lucie Loxahatchee Map 229

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Learn About Your Watershed

St. Lucie - Loxahatchee Rivers Watershed

Image of The Loxahatchee River winds through a cypress swamp
The Loxahatchee River winds through a cypress swamp © Willy Volk

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: The St. Lucie River Basin comprises the 1,050-square-mile St. Lucie River watershed and the C-25 watershed to the north. The adjacent Loxahatchee Basin, to the south, is 278 square miles in size.

Major Cities and Towns: Fort Pierce, Gomez, Hobe Sound, Indian River Estates, Indiantown, Indrio, Jupiter, Jupiter Island, Lakewood Park, North River Shores, Palm City, Port St. Lucie, Port Salerno, River Park, St. Lucie, Sewall's Point, Stuart, Tequesta, Viking, and White City

Counties: St. Lucie County, Martin County, Palm Beach County, and Okeechobee County

Major Water Features: North Fork of the St. Lucie River, St. Lucie River, St. Lucie River Estuary, Loxahatchee River, Loxahatchee River Estuary, Intracoastal Waterway, Tenmile Creek, Fivemile Creek, the Savannas, Belcher Creek, Belcher Canal, Henderson Pond, Lake Eden, Nubbin Slough, Blind Creek, Big Mud Creek, Clayton Howard Pond, Cowbone Creek, Gomez Creek, Cypress Creek, Moore Creek, Long Creek, Britt Creek, Warner Creek, Frazier Creek, Danforth Creek, Mapps Creek, Hog Creek, L-65 Canal, Manatee Creek, Cypress Creek, and Hungry Land Slough CanalFl

Overview

Image of Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, the last northernmost portion of the unique Everglades. With over 221 square miles of Everglades habitat, the refuge is home to the Everglades snail kite. In any given year, as many as 257 species of birds may use the refuge's diverse wetland habitats.
Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, the last northernmost portion of the unique Everglades. With over 221 square miles of Everglades habitat, the refuge is home to the Everglades snail kite. In any given year, as many as 257 species of birds may use the refuge's diverse wetland habitats.

The Loxahatchee River Estuary is considered by many to be a southern extension of the Indian River Lagoon (IRL). The IRL system (including the St. Lucie and Loxahatchee River Estuaries) contains the most diverse estuarine ecology in North America.

Extending as far as the Lake Okeechobee watershed, the St. Lucie watershed consists of former wetlands that have been extensively drained for agriculture. The inner St. Lucie Estuary is composed of the South and North Forks of the St. Lucie River. These converge to form a single middle estuary that extends eastward to the IRL. Historically, this area included a much smaller natural watershed that directly contributed to the river system. Interior areas of Martin and St. Lucie Counties contained large expanses of poorly drained wetlands that did not directly feed to the river and estuary.

The Ft. Pierce and St. Lucie Inlets are man-made inlets that allow for ocean access as well as tidal exchange between the St. Lucie Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean. Before the construction of the St. Lucie Inlet, the St. Lucie Estuary was a freshwater lagoon.

Surface waters, including lakes, streams, wetlands, estuaries, and canals, occupy almost two-thirds of the St. Lucie-Loxahatchee watersheds.

Image of The St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park is a classic Florida barrier island accessible only by boat. A boardwalk takes visitors across mangrove forests and hammocks of live oaks, cabbage palms, paradise trees, and wild limes to a neatly preserved Atlantic beach. During the summer months, the island is an important nesting area for loggerhead, leatherback, and green turtles.
The St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park is a classic Florida barrier island accessible only by boat. A boardwalk takes visitors across mangrove forests and hammocks of live oaks, cabbage palms, paradise trees, and wild limes to a neatly preserved Atlantic beach. During the summer months, the island is an important nesting area for loggerhead, leatherback, and green turtles.

With the construction of a complex network of drainage canals (C-44, C-23, C-24, and C-25) in inland areas, the drainage area of the St. Lucie Estuary and IRL expanded to include all of Martin and St. Lucie Counties. These canals provide flood control and carry agricultural runoff from areas as far west as the Lake Okeechobee watershed. Beef cattle and citrus production are the largest agricultural activities in the St. Lucie watershed, with rangeland and improved pasture covering more than 25 percent of the area.

In contrast to the St. Lucie watershed, wetlands remain the predominant land cover in the Loxahatchee watershed, and a much lower percentage of the watershed is used for agriculture, primarily citrus. Urban sprawl and new residential development are increasing, both within the watershed and in the rapidly developing region to the south. Many areas of the Loxahatchee watershed that are not developed for residential purposes have been purchased or are being purchased for conservation.

There are a number of Outstanding Florida Waters (OFWs) in the St. Lucie and Loxahatchee watersheds, including the IRL, Loxahatchee River, North Fork of the St. Lucie River, Hobe Sound, Jonathan Dickinson State Park, Savannas State Reserve, Avalon State Recreation Area, Fort Pierce Inlet State Recreation Area, and Green Turtle Beach. The IRL, Loxahatchee River, and North Fork of the St. Lucie River are also designated as state Aquatic Preserves. In 1985, the Northwest Fork of the Loxahatchee River was federally designated as the first Wild and Scenic River in Florida. Hobe Sound is a National Wildlife Refuge.

Human Impacts

Image of Port Mayaca lock and dam releases water from Lake Okeechobee into the C-44 (St. Lucie Canal) which discharges into the South Fork of the St. Lucie River. Massive surges of fresh water from the canal have caused extreme fluctuations in salinity, severely stressing the entire estuarine ecosystem. The sediment load carried by the canal has blanketed the bottoms of the estuary, the river, and its tributaries. Urban and agricultural canals that discharge to the estuary contribute nutrients, sediments, pesticides, septic tank seepage, and other contaminants.
Port Mayaca lock and dam releases water from Lake Okeechobee into the C-44 (St. Lucie Canal) which discharges into the South Fork of the St. Lucie River. Massive surges of fresh water from the canal have caused extreme fluctuations in salinity, severely stressing the entire estuarine ecosystem. The sediment load carried by the canal has blanketed the bottoms of the estuary, the river, and its tributaries. Urban and agricultural canals that discharge to the estuary contribute nutrients, sediments, pesticides, septic tank seepage, and other contaminants. US Army Corps of Engineers

The St. Lucie and Loxahatchee River estuaries, indeed the whole IRL system, exist in a delicate ecological balance. Increases in population, land use changes, and alterations of natural drainage patterns have resulted in impacts to water quality and ecological health.

In the St. Lucie and Loxahatchee watersheds, population growth and urbanization have mostly occurred in near-coastal areas. The largest population centers include Ft. Pierce and Port St. Lucie, Stuart, and Jupiter and Palm Beach Gardens. Other coastal communities and residential developments have extended from these population centers. Urban and suburban stormwater and treated wastewater from these areas are discharged directly or indirectly into the St. Lucie and Loxahatchee Rivers and their tributaries.

Westward from the coast, extending as far as the Lake Okeechobee watershed, beef cattle and citrus predominate. Citrus production relies heavily on irrigation, drainage, and the use of agrochemicals. Stormwater runoff from agricultural areas drains into the St. Lucie Estuary and the IRL via networks of farm ditches, canals maintained by county and water control districts, major canals maintained by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), and the remaining natural streams.

In particular, the C-44 Canal discharge into the South Fork of the St. Lucie River has significantly affected the St. Lucie Estuary. Massive surges of fresh water from the canal have caused extreme fluctuations in salinity, severely stressing the entire estuarine ecosystem. The sediment load carried by the canal has blanketed the bottoms of the estuary, the river, and its tributaries. Urban and agricultural canals that discharge to the estuary contribute nutrients, sediments, pesticides, septic tank seepage, and other contaminants. The ecological impacts to the St. Lucie Estuary include algal blooms; fish kills; lesions on fish; the depletion of seagrasses, oyster beds, and other estuarine habitat due to turbidity and reduced salinity; and the smothering of benthic habitats by flocculent ooze.

Urban and agricultural canals discharge nutrients, sediments, pesticides, septic tank seepage, and other contaminants to the estuary.

The Northwest Fork of the Loxahatchee River has been greatly affected by the diversion of fresh water south to the West Palm Beach Water Catchment Area, which was once part of the 300-square-mile watershed. At the turn of the 19th century, Loxahatchee Slough, extending from the southern part of the Loxahatchee watershed, was bisected, with its waters diverted or contained to supply water for West Palm Beach. This reduced the size of the Loxahatchee River's watershed.

The dredging and creation of a permanent inlet to the Atlantic Ocean at Jupiter Inlet has allowed more salt water to enter the estuary and has significantly altered the natural hydrography and ecology of the estuary and the river. The Northwest Fork has lost six river miles of cypress swamp since the 1940s due to the encroachment of salt water caused by the dredging of the inlet and the decrease in fresh water flow to the river.

Urban sprawl and new residential development are of concern, both within the Loxahatchee watershed and in the rapidly developing region to the south. An area known as Jupiter Farms, covering about 10,000 acres, consists of large lot ranchettes, many of which support livestock. Jupiter Farms is located at the headwaters of the federally designated Wild and Scenic Northwest Fork of the Loxahatchee River.

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

Interesting Facts:

  • Facing increasing water shortages in northern Palm Beach County, the town of Jupiter invested in a reverse osmosis plant that went online in 1990. This has improved ground water levels and helped protect wetlands from drying out during the recent drought.
  • Surface waters, including lakes, streams, wetlands, estuaries, and canals, occupy approximately 79 square miles, or almost two-thirds of the St. Lucie-Loxahatchee watersheds.
  • Palm Beach County has an aggressive land acquisition program that has resulted in the protection of several large natural areas in the Loxahatchee River watershed.
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