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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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Learn About Your Watershed

Upper East Coast Watershed

Image of Sunrise on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in St. Augustine.
Sunrise on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in St. Augustine. Nathan Eaton Jr.

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: 692 square miles (excluding estuarine areas)

Major Cities and Towns: St. Augustine, St. Augustine Beach, Marineland, Flagler Beach, Beverly Beach, Holly Hill, Daytona Beach, Daytona Beach Shores, South Daytona, Port Orange, Ponce Inlet, New Smyrna Beach, Allandale, Butler Beach, College Park, Crescent Beach, Glencoe, Ormond-by-the-Sea, Ormond Beach, Palm Coast, Ponce Inlet, St. Augustine Shores, Samsula, Ponte Vedra Beach, and Vilano Beach

Counties: Volusia County, Flagler County, and St. Johns County

Major Water Features:
Matanzas River, Moultrie Creek, San Julian Creek, St. Augustine Inlet, Matanzas Inlet, Ponce de Leon Inlet, Intracoastal Waterway, Guana River, Stokes Creek , Casa Cola Creek, Sombrero Creek, Pancho Creek, Robinson Creek, Spruce Creek, Tolomato River, Lower Deep Creek, St. Marks Pond Estuary, Tomoka River, Reed Canal, Halifax River, Halifax Canal, Murray Creek, Callalisa, Tiger Creek, Tiger Bay, Smith Creek, St. Joe Canal, Fox Cut, Hulett Branch, Cracker Branch, Pringle Branch, Styles Creek, San Sebastian River, Salt Run, Bennett Swamp, Graham Swamp, and Pellicer Creek

Overview

Image of The Guana River takes shape on a barrier island midway between St. Augustine and Jacksonville. The Guana flows south to the Tolomato River and is part of the Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve.
The Guana River takes shape on a barrier island midway between St. Augustine and Jacksonville. The Guana flows south to the Tolomato River and is part of the Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. Craig O'Neal

The Upper East Coast Basin is located on the northern Atlantic coast of Florida. Covering approximately 692 square miles (excluding estuarine areas), it includes the watersheds along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AICW) from Ponce de Leon Inlet in Volusia County, north through Flagler and St. Johns Counties, to southern Duval County.

Surface waters occupy 158,939 acres, or about 36 percent of the total basin area. The basin encompasses coastal lowlands and extensive marshes interspersed with numerous creeks and small rivers draining east toward the Atlantic Ocean to form a series of shallow bays and coastal lagoons. These are separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a barrier island system with three inlets where tidal exchange occurs: St. Augustine, Matanzas, and Ponce de Leon.

Image of A dolphin makes an early morning appearance on the Tolomato River.
A dolphin makes an early morning appearance on the Tolomato River. David Falls

The AICW extends northward out of the basin for approximately 15 miles, where it connects with the St. Johns River, which flows to the Atlantic Ocean. The AICW runs the entire length of the basin's coastal lagoons. Where it crosses into the basin, it joins and becomes part of the Tolomato River. North of St. Augustine, the Tolomato River connects to the Guana River and flows to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Augustine Inlet. South of St. Augustine, the Matanzas River is a lagoonal estuary, with the flow of water discharging to the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Matanzas Inlet. The Matanzas River estuary connects to the Halifax River estuary to the south via an artificial channel created as an extension of the AICW. The Halifax River extends south from the artificial channel north of Daytona Beach, exiting the basin at the Ponce de Leon Inlet. Tidal flow in this area also originates through the Ponce de Leon Inlet.

The basin encompasses coastal lowlands and marshes interspersed with numerous creeks and small rivers draining east to form a series of shallow bays and lagoons.

Circulation and water quality in the basin are driven by ocean water levels, rainfall, wind events, boat wakes, runoff, evaporation, ground water seepage, and inputs of substances from the surrounding environment. The transport of suspended and dissolved substances in the estuaries and channels is driven primarily by tides and winds.

The population of the Upper East Coast Basin has increased in recent years, with Flagler County experiencing particularly rapid growth. In 1990, the total population of Flagler County was 28,701. In 2006, population had increased 189 percent to 83,084. The population of St. Johns County increased approximately 100 percent from 83,829 in 1990 to 169,224 in 2006. In Volusia County, the population grew from 370,712 in 1990 to 496,575 in 2006, an increase of 34 percent.

Image of Bulow Creek State Park is located just north of Ormond Beach. The park protects one of the largest remaining stands of southern live oak forest along Florida's east coast.
Bulow Creek State Park is located just north of Ormond Beach. The park protects one of the largest remaining stands of southern live oak forest along Florida's east coast. Denise Olsen

A number of waterbodies have been given additional protection through designation as Outstanding Florida Waters (OFWs): Fort Mose, Anastasia State Recreation Area, Faver-Dykes State Park, Washington Oaks State Gardens, Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area at Flagler Beach, Bulow Creek State Park, North Peninsula State Recreation Area, Tomoka River and Tomoka State Park, Spruce Creek, Guana River, Guana River State Park, and Guana River Marsh Aquatic Preserve, Pellicer Creek Aquatic Preserve, and Tomoka River and Tomoka Marsh Aquatic Preserve.

Human Impacts

The principal land use in the basin is silviculture, with urban areas found primarily along the coast. Urban development is expected to continue expanding westward from the coast. Sizable areas designated for silviculture, agriculture, and conservation remain in each of the three counties but may be under development pressure. The natural hydrology of the basin has been significantly altered by a combination of water control structures, dikes, drainage ditches, and canals.

The basin's nonpoint sources of pollution, which can degrade ground water as well as surface water quality, include stormwater runoff or the leaching of pollutants into ground water from agriculture, silviculture and urban/suburban land uses, atmospheric deposition, and septic tanks. Septic tanks can be a source of nutrients, pathogens, and other pollutants. In 1995, the total numbers of septic tanks in the basin, by county, ranged from 3,352 in Flagler County to 66,949 in Volusia County. Total septic tank failure rates in Flagler, St. Johns and Volusia Counties exceed the state average.

Major drainage to the Matanzas River Estuary includes overland urban runoff. In 1995, extensive shellfish-harvesting areas were reclassified from "conditionally approved" to "conditionally restricted" for shellfish harvesting due to elevated coliform bacteria levels. The net result was a closure of virtually all of the primary shellfish harvesting areas north of St. Augustine.

Image of The Halifax River is a section of the Florida Intracoastal Waterway spanning mostly the northern part of Volusia County from Ormond Beach to Daytona Beach and ending at Ponce Inlet.
The Halifax River is a section of the Florida Intracoastal Waterway spanning mostly the northern part of Volusia County from Ormond Beach to Daytona Beach and ending at Ponce Inlet. Chris Lawrence

Urban runoff and other sources of sediments increase concentrations of total suspended solids and cause somewhat elevated turbidity, which likely reflect tributary loading and bottom scouring and re-suspension caused by strong tidal currents, wind-generated waves, and boat wakes.

Based on current growth and the future land use plan for Pellicer Creek, residential areas could potentially increase from the current 7 to 22 percent of the area by 2020. Most of the western portions of the watershed is in silviculture. High densities of septic systems along the barrier island in northern Flagler County may contribute bacteria and nutrients to the narrow, channelized portions of the AICW. Wave energy due to boat traffic causes the continuous re-suspension of sediments, resulting in increases in total suspended solids.

Mosquito impoundments, residential development, or silviculture have altered most of the historical watershed drainage to the Halifax estuary. An 1,100-acre mosquito impoundment is still located west of the AICW and north of the Tomoka River watershed, though the dike wall has been breached in several places, and active management of the impoundment ended in the early 1980s. Six causeways cross the Halifax River Estuary within a distance of 10.5 miles, inhibiting circulation in the area.

The Volusia County Health Department has identified a number of areas with potential septic tank problems. These include the barrier island Ormond by the Sea, neighborhoods around Ormond Beach along the Tomoka River, Port Orange, Rose Bay, and along Spruce Creek.

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 Upper East Coast Basin.

Interesting Facts:

  • Founded by the Spanish in 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest city and oldest port established by Europeans in the continental United States.
  • The Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon first visited the area in 1513.
  • The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway extends from Key West to Boston.
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