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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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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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Learn About Your Watershed

Suwannee River Watershed

Image of The Suwannee River originates in Georgia and flows southwest to the Gulf of Mexico. It is the largest watershed in the state, covering 7,702 square miles. FDEP
The Suwannee River originates in Georgia and flows southwest to the Gulf of Mexico. It is the largest watershed in the state, covering 7,702 square miles. FDEP FDEP

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: 7,702 square miles

Major Cities and Towns: Lake City, Live Oak, Starke, Alachua, Chiefland, Madison, Perry, northwestern edge of Gainesville, White Springs, Fanning Springs, Branford, Bronson, Cedar Key, Newberry, and Otter Creek

Counties: Madison, Suwannee, Hamilton, Taylor, Lafayette, Gilchrist, and Dixie Counties are in the watershed, as well as portions of Bradford, Jefferson, Levy, Alachua Columbia, Union, and Baker Counties

Major Water Features: Major rivers and saltwater features: Suwannee River, Alapaha River, Withlacoochee River, Santa Fe River, Aucilla River, Econfina River, Fenholloway River, Steinhatchee River, Waccasassa River, Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve, and Suwannee River Estuary

Major Swamps and Wetlands: Okefenokee-Pinhook Swamp, San Pedro Bay, Everett Pond, Mallory Swamp, Hixtown Swamp, Waccasassa Flats, Santa Fe Swamp, California Swamp, Pumpkin Swamp, and Tide Swamp

Major Springs: Ichetucknee Springs Group, Peacock Springs, Troy Spring, Ginnie Springs, Fanning Springs, and Manatee Spring

Overview

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

The Suwannee River rises in the Okefenokee Swamp, emerging at Fargo, Georgia. It flows southwest into Florida, dropping in elevation through limestone layers, resulting in some of Florida's only whitewater rapids. It then turns west near White Springs, Florida, receiving the waters of the Alapaha and Withlacoochee Rivers, which together drain much of south-central Georgia. The Suwannee River watershed also includes the Santa Fe, Aucilla/Wacissa, Econfina, Fenholloway, Steinhatchee, and Waccasassa River watersheds. It is the largest watershed in the state, covering 7,702 square miles in north-central Florida within all or part of 14 counties. It is also one of the least populated areas in Florida. In 1990, the population was about 410,000, mainly concentrated in the higher, drier counties east of the Suwannee River.

Image of Sue Colson rinses mud from clams. In the southern end of the watershed, Cedar Key is the nation's largest producer of farm-raised clams. Improvements in water quality in the 1980s enabled the industry to thrive.
Sue Colson rinses mud from clams. In the southern end of the watershed, Cedar Key is the nation's largest producer of farm-raised clams. Improvements in water quality in the 1980s enabled the industry to thrive.

The watershed contains a rich assortment of rivers and streams, springs, cypress ponds, swamps, and estuaries. A major feature of the watershed is its many protected natural areas, which include three national wildlife refuges, 10 state parks or preserves, other public lands, and the Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve. The preserve, the largest in Florida, includes about 450,000 acres of seagrass beds and salt marsh that extends southward and eastward from the St. Marks River to the south Withlacoochee River. The Big Bend is the second largest contiguous area of seagrass habitat in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, making it an important resource not only to Florida but also nationally and internationally. The Big Bend area is also designated as an Outstanding Florida Water (OFW) and a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Gulf Ecological Management Site (GEMS).

The Suwannee River watershed has the highest density of springs in the world and is an internationally recognized destination for cave diving.

Although lakes are scattered throughout the watershed, the region contains fewer lakes than other areas of the state. The watershed's lakes occur either as perched systems, or as depressions that extend below the surface of the surficial and upper Floridan aquifers. Wetlands comprise approximately 19 percent of the watershed's land area, and extensive wetlands are found in all parts of the watershed. The Gulf of Mexico lies along the southwestern edge of the watershed. Because of the region's flat topography, the entire low-energy shoreline is one large estuarine complex composed of river and tidal systems. Extensive seagrass beds stretch from these estuaries for miles into the open Gulf.

Image of With 253 springs identified, the watershed has the highest density of springs in the world, making the Suwannee River prime habitat for manatees.
With 253 springs identified, the watershed has the highest density of springs in the world, making the Suwannee River prime habitat for manatees.

Growth and development along the watershed's rivers has been limited, largely because of floodplain management ordinances, land use plans, and land acquisition programs at state, regional, and local levels. To the west of the Suwannee River, the dominant land uses are tree plantations and agriculture. Timber companies hold most of the coastal lowlands in large tracts of planted pine. Vast tracts of timber are also found in the wet flatwoods to the east of the Alapaha River and uppermost Suwannee River. East of the Suwannee River, silviculture and agriculture continue to dominate, but the amount of urbanized land is markedly greater than west of the river.

The Suwannee River supports the largest population of Gulf sturgeon in the region. A protected species, Gulf sturgeon can grow to eight feet and weighing up to 200 pounds.

The watershed still has farms that combine row crops with livestock, large corporate dairies, and irrigated row crop and forage operations. Other land uses include poultry production, phosphate mining, and aquaculture. Approximately 18 percent of the total land area in the watershed is publicly or privately owned as conservation lands. The remaining 82 percent is privately owned.

Human Impacts

Image of Green algae grows in Fanning Springs, which has the highest nitrogen levels of any of the state's largest springs. Excess nitrate from agricultural fertilizers, wastewater treatment and septic systems continues to contaminate ground water in the watershed.
Green algae grows in Fanning Springs, which has the highest nitrogen levels of any of the state's largest springs. Excess nitrate from agricultural fertilizers, wastewater treatment and septic systems continues to contaminate ground water in the watershed. Russell Sparkman

Excess nitrate-nitrogen leached primarily from agricultural activities such as row and forage crops and dairy and poultry production continues to contaminate ground water in the watershed. Other sources include permitted facilities that discharge treated effluent to surface waters. In 2000, Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) staff calculated that 78 percent of the nitrate-nitrogen load carried by the Suwannee River to the Gulf of Mexico was introduced into the river from the middle Suwannee watershed and the bottom section of the Santa Fe watershed. Together, these represent less than 19 percent of the Suwannee Basin's land area. Virtually all the load comes from ground water discharge via springs.

Excess nitrogen from agricultural fertilizers and livestock is the major pollutant affecting ground water and springs in the watershed.

Phosphate mining in southeastern Hamilton County has altered a large part of the original landscape. Aquaculture is increasing along the coast, particularly in Levy County (the Cedar Key area), following a reduction in other fisheries resulting from the constitutional net ban. Submerged leases offshore from Cedar Key are used to raise littleneck clams for local, national, and international markets.

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


Interesting Facts:

  • With 253 springs currently identified, the watershed has the highest density of springs in the world,.
  • Springs in the watershed are internationally famous recreational sites for swimming, snorkeling, and cave diving. The area is considered the "Cave Diving Capital of the World" by the underwater explorers of caves.
  • The Suwannee River is the second largest river in the state in terms of flow.
  • Hixtown Swamp, a mixture of marsh grasses and cypress domes in Madison County, is one of the largest remaining transitional cypress/marsh wetlands in the southeast.
  • The Suwannee River supports the largest population of Gulf sturgeon among the region's coastal rivers. The fish is federally listed as threatened and state listed as a species of special concern. Biologists estimate the annual population at between 2,250 and 3,000 fish, which can grow to eight feet and weigh up to 200 pounds.
  • Cedar Key is the nation's largest provider of hardshell clams.
  • Florida's official state song is Old Folks at Home (Way Down Upon the Suwannee River), written by Stephen Foster, who neither visited the river or Florida during his lifetime.
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