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Learn About Your Watershed

Upper St. Johns River Watershed

Image of Blue Cypress Lake is the most identifiable water body at the headwaters of the St. Johns River.
Blue Cypress Lake is the most identifiable water body at the headwaters of the St. Johns River. © Russell Sparkman

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: 1,888 square miles

Major Cities and Towns: Titusville, Cocoa, Rockledge, Melbourne, Palm Bay, and Fellsmere

Counties: Most of the watershed lies in Osceola and Brevard Counties, and smaller areas lie within Okeechobee, Indian River, Orange, and Seminole Counties.

Major Water Features: Rivers: Upper St. Johns and St. Sebastian

Streams: Turkey Creek, Fort Drum, Taylor, Jane Green, Cox, Wolf, and Blue Cypress

Lakes: Puzzle, Poinsett, Winder, Washington, Sawgrass, Blue Cypress, and Hell n' Blazes

Overview

Image of Twenty miles west of Vero Beach, dark water flows north slowly through the 20,000-acre Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area to begin the flow of the mighty St. Johns River some 300 miles from it's ultimate rendezvous with the Atlantic Ocean.
Twenty miles west of Vero Beach, dark water flows north slowly through the 20,000-acre Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area to begin the flow of the mighty St. Johns River some 300 miles from it's ultimate rendezvous with the Atlantic Ocean. SJRWMD

The Upper St. Johns River Basin extends from the headwaters of the St. Johns River in Indian River and Okeechobee Counties to the confluence of the St. Johns and Econlockhatchee Rivers in Seminole County. It originally contained over 400,000 acres of floodplain marsh.

The St. Johns River begins as a series of marshes underlain by fibrous peat deposits. This extensive marsh system forms the headwaters for three distinct drainage basins. The southern part flows into the St. Lucie Basin; the western portions drain to the Kissimmee Basin; and the northern marsh, with Blue Cypress Lake as its major storage area, drains into the St. Johns Basin. Historically, rainfall entered the headwater marshes and moved downstream as sheet flow.

A well-defined river channel does not appear until 30 miles downstream below Lake Hell'n Blazes. South of the lake, the St. Johns River comprises largely marsh or drained marshland converted to agriculture. Here the main stem of the river passes through a wide valley dotted with palmetto islands and marshes.

The St. Johns River is an ancient intracoastal lagoon system. As sea levels dropped, barrier islands became an obstacle that prevented water from flowing to the ocean. The water collected in the flat valley and slowly meandered northward, forming the St. Johns River.

Image of The Farm 13 Reservoir near Fellsmere is one component of a massive wetlands and water quality restoration effort in the watershed.
The Farm 13 Reservoir near Fellsmere is one component of a massive wetlands and water quality restoration effort in the watershed. Russell Sparkman

Drainage modifications were made in many of the river's tributaries as part of earlier U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) flood control plans. The 10,400-acre, privately owned Taylor Creek Reservoir was also created in the 1960s as part of the Central & Southern Florida (C&SF) Flood Control Project. Control structures regulate the reservoir's outflow to the St. Johns River.

Land uses in the basin include agriculture and rangeland, upland forests, and wetlands. Almost 25 percent of agricultural land use consists of pasture to support cattle grazing, largely west of the St. Johns River. Indian River citrus is an important commercial crop, mainly on the southeast side of the St. Johns. Urban and developed land uses occupy about 7 percent of the basin and are largely concentrated along the central to northeastern boundary, with most development in Brevard County. In 2000, the combined population of the counties in the basin was more than 2,1 million, representing more than a 700 percent increase since 1950, and the population in 2020 is projected to be 3.6 million.

Wetlands and surface waterbodies make up more than a third of the Upper St. Johns Basin. Wetland types include freshwater marsh, cypress swamp, hardwood swamp, and shrub swamp. Historically, these areas provided important nesting and foraging habitat for snail kites, bald eagles, and wading birds and other waterfowl, as well as valuable fish habitat.

The Upper St. Johns River Basin Project is one of the largest and most ambitious wetland restoration projects in the world.

The basin contains 19 animal species and 14 plant species with federal or state protected status. The endangered snail kite and threatened crested caracara use the basin's marshes for feeding and nesting; the basin is particularly important for snail kites during droughts. Marshes also provide habitat for species such as sandhill cranes, woodstorks, round-tailed muskrat, and black rail. The anadromous American shad travels up the St. Johns River late each winter and early spring to spawn. The river supports both a commercial and recreational shad fishery.

Image of The T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area is an almost 6,300-acre wetland restoration to provide habitat for wintering, migrating, and resident waterfowl, including the endangered whooping crane.
The T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area is an almost 6,300-acre wetland restoration to provide habitat for wintering, migrating, and resident waterfowl, including the endangered whooping crane. Russell Sparkman

Publicly owned lands account for a large portion of the basin. They include the William Beardall Tosohatchee State Reserve, Blue Cypress Water Management Area, Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area, St. Sebastian River State Buffer Preserve, Micco Scrub Sanctuary, Sawgrass Lake Water Management Area, Canaveral Marshes Conservation Area, Bird Lake Marsh, and St. Johns National Wildlife Refuge, along with large parcels of conservation and marsh restoration properties along the length of the St. Johns River. Most of the St. Johns River floodplain (34,429 acres) is in public ownership as part of the River Lakes Conservation Area. The Upper St. Johns River Basin Project, an ongoing major river restoration and flood protection project, extends from U.S. Highway 192 south to the headwater marshes.

Waterbodies in the basin that have been given additional protection through designation as Outstanding Florida Waters (OFWs) include the St. Johns River National Wildlife Refuge, William Beardall Tosohatchee State Reserve, and a portion of the Econlockhatchee River. The St. Johns River and its watershed, except for the portion of the basin in Representative Cliff Stearns's district, was designated an American Heritage River in1998.

Human Impacts

Beginning in the late 19th century, and at an accelerating rate in the 1940s and 1950s, many of the St. Johns River marshes were diked and drained to provide land for agricultural purposes. By the early 1970s, almost two-thirds of the historical marshlands had been drained and converted to other uses and, by the 1970s, more than 40 private pumping stations were discharging agricultural runoff into the St. Johns and its marshes. A number of major canals and their associated drainage networks were also constructed to divert water from the Upper St. Johns Basin into the Indian River Lagoon.

The impacts of these activities included the loss of water storage areas, which exacerbated flood hazards, degraded water quality, and resulted in extensive habitat loss and significant decreases in fish, wading birds and waterfowl, and other wildlife. In addition excessive quantities of fresh water were diverted to Indian River Lagoon. The marsh that remained was further degraded by hydrologic alterations and nutrient-rich agricultural runoff. Fish kills caused by low dissolved oxygen (DO) levels became common, and sportfish populations generally declined.

Beginning in the late 19th century many of the upper St. Johns River marshes were diked and drained to provide land for agricultural purposes.

Agriculture and conservation lands will continue to be major land uses in the basin in the near future. Urban growth is expected to continue moving westward beyond Interstate 95, particularly from the Melbourne/Palm Bay area northward to the Brevard County boundary with Volusia County. Continued large-scale agricultural activities, which are accompanied by the use of fertilizers and pesticides, will affect both surface and ground water quality. The natural upwelling of saline water from the deep part of the Floridan aquifer is also increased by the pumping of municipal or agricultural wells, lowering of the surficial aquifer water table through canal dredging, and dewatering of wetlands for agriculture and flood control. Upstream of Lake Washington, agricultural irrigation moves saline ground water to the surface as runoff.

In recognition of these impacts, FDEP, the St. Johns River Water Management District (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 St. Johns Basin.

Interesting Facts:

  • The watershed contains many unique and rare botanical specimens, including the threatened large flowered rosemary and endangered celestial lily.
  • The Upper St. Johns River Basin Project is one of the largest and most ambitious wetland restoration projects in the world.
  • The St. Johns River is an ancient intracoastal lagoon system.
  • The river gets its tea color from tannins, which are natural substances in decaying plant material.
  • Because the river moves so slowly, it is difficult for the river current to flush pollutants.
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