The Water Channel

icon Video and Multimedia

Image of River Bank Florida Water Story Image widget thumbnail

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.

View Video

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.

Learn moreicon

Green Swamp Excursion

Image of leaf floating in Green Swamp

Take a Virtual Trip Through the Withlacoochee Basin

See why the Green Swamp is the beat of Florida’s hydrologic heart. (SWFWMD)

Learn More icon

Learn About Your Watershed

Withlacoochee River Watershed

Image of The Withlacoochee River meanders 157 miles to the Gulf of Mexico from its origins in the Green Swamp.
The Withlacoochee River meanders 157 miles to the Gulf of Mexico from its origins in the Green Swamp.

Watershed Stats

Size of Watershed: 2,100 square miles

Major Cities and Towns: Yankeetown, Silver Springs Shores, Inglis, Belleview, Dunnellon, Citrus Springs, Ocala, Lake Alfred, Auburndale, Lakeland, Dade City, Polk City, St. Leo, Groveland, Hernando, Pine Ridge, Beverly Hills, Citrus Hills, Inverness, Floral City, Lake Lindsey, Brooksville, The Villages, Lady Lake, Spring Lake, Ridge Manor, Wildwood, Coleman, Lake Panasoffkee, Webster, Bushnell, Fruitland Park, Leesburg, and Mascotte

Counties: The majority of the watershed lies within Marion, Polk, and Sumter Counties, and smaller areas lie within Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Levy, and Pasco Counties.

Major Water Features: Withlacoochee River, Rainbow River, Rainbow Springs, Colt Creek, Jumper Creek, Pony Creek, Gator Creek, Mattress Drain, Grass Creek, and Gum Springs

Lakes: Panasoffkee, Okahumpka, Lindsey, Bystre, Spring, Geneva, Deeson, Agnes, Mud, Hampton, Hernando, Henderson, Rousseau, and Tsala Apopka

Overview

Image of The Rainbow River is a spring-fed tributary contributing up to 462 million gallons of fresh water daily to the Withlacoochee River. The Rainbow Springs system is Florida's fourth largest spring and the tenth largest freshwater spring in the world.
The Rainbow River is a spring-fed tributary contributing up to 462 million gallons of fresh water daily to the Withlacoochee River. The Rainbow Springs system is Florida's fourth largest spring and the tenth largest freshwater spring in the world. Paul Clark

The 157-mile-long Withlacoochee River originates in the Green Swamp in northern Polk County. From there, it meanders northwest and then west, discharging into the Withlacoochee Bay Estuary in the Gulf of Mexico near Yankeetown. The river's waters are tea colored from tannins, which are natural substances found in decaying organic material.

The 5.7-mile-long Rainbow River in western Marion County, is a spring-fed tributary to the Withlacoochee River. The Rainbow River's waters are exceptionally clear, since it is fed predominantly by Rainbow Springs. This system of 18 springs is the largest in the watershed, Florida's fourth largest spring, and the tenth largest freshwater spring in the world. It contributes up to 462 million gallons of fresh water daily to the Withlacoochee River. The river feeds Lake Rousseau, a 3,657-acre lake that was created in 1909 when the Florida Power Corporation completed the construction of the Inglis Dam (now the Inglis Lock) across the Withlacoochee River.

The channel of the lower Withlacoochee River from Inglis to the river mouth was dramatically altered by the construction of the now-deactivated Cross-Florida Barge Canal in the 1960s. The canal bisected the lower river two miles below the dam. Numerous control structures regulate flows in both the river and its surrounding tributaries and wetlands, affecting flows to the Withlacoochee Bay Estuary. The estuary is part of a large complex of estuaries and bays that extends from Tarpon Springs in the south to the Big Bend region in the north. These areas contain diverse fish and wildlife habitat and are extremely important for commercial and recreational fisheries and other wildlife.

Lake Panasoffkee and Tsala Apopka Lake, as well as many smaller lakes in the watershed, are thought to be the remnants of a much larger lake that once occupied all of a region called the Tsala Apopka Plain. Today, Lake Panasoffkee drains a watershed encompassing about 63,000 acres. One of the state's oldest lakes, it is the third largest of approximately 1,800 lakes in west-central Florida. Depending on rainfall, the lake's surface area ranges from about 3,800 to 4,500 acres. It is relatively shallow, and wetland vegetation dominates the shoreline, providing habitat for fish and wildlife.

The 157-mile Withlacoochee River originates in the Green Swamp in northern Polk County and meanders northwest, discharging into the Withlacoochee Bay Estuary in the Gulf of Mexico near Yankeetown.

Image of A fishing boat makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico on the Withlacoochee River at Yankeetown.
A fishing boat makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico on the Withlacoochee River at Yankeetown. Kevin Sparkman

Tsala Apopka Lake comprises three distinct hydrologic pools (Floral City, Inverness, and Hernando) covering approximately 20,000 acres in Citrus County. Thousands of acres of contiguous marsh surround the lake's open-water features and support diverse, wetland-dependent species. The lake has a national reputation, especially for its redear sunfish fishery, and contributes to both the local and regional economies.

The watershed's natural communities form an extensive and diverse ecosystem, ranging from river floodplain forests, cypress domes, pine flatwoods, and sandhills in the Green Swamp; to extensive lake systems and marshes in the middle of the watershed; to salt marshes and the estuary at the river mouth. This ecosystem supports nearly 500 vertebrate species, including freshwater and saltwater fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. In addition to a wide range of common vertebrate species, a number of state and federally protected species inhabit the Withlacoochee Watershed.

Public land ownership is significant in the watershed. The Withlacoochee State Forest, managed by DEP's Division of Forestry, is currently the second largest state forest in Florida. It covers more than 140,000 acres in eastern Citrus and Hernando Counties. The Withlacoochee River and Little Withlacoochee River flow through it. Both rivers and their connected lakes and tributaries are designated as Outstanding Florida Waters (OFWs), as is Jumper Creek, a 16-mile-long creek that lies north of the Green Swamp, Gum Slough, Gum Springs Run, and Lake Panasoffkee. Many other large parcels of land, including the Flying Eagle Ranch, Potts Preserve, Lake Panasoffkee Tract, and portions of the Green Swamp, are also publicly owned. The Rainbow River is designated as a state Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) priority waterbody for restoration and protection, an OFW, and an Aquatic Preserve; and Rainbow Springs is designated as a National Natural Landmark. Lake Panasoffkee is also designated as a SWIM priority waterbody.

Human Impacts

Image of In western Marion County, residential and commercial growth has occurred at a rapid rate, and with it, potential increased loads of nitrates from fertilizers and septic systems.
In western Marion County, residential and commercial growth has occurred at a rapid rate, and with it, potential increased loads of nitrates from fertilizers and septic systems. Russell Sparkman

The dominant land uses and land coverage in the Withlacoochee Watershed are wetlands, upland forest, rangeland, agriculture, mining, and urban. Agricultural activities in the watershed include cattle ranching, row crops, sod, pasture, pine plantation, and cypress harvesting. The primary industrial land use is limerock mining. Other types of mining include the extraction of sand and horticultural peat. Although residential and commercial development in the region is increasing, the watershed as a whole remains largely undeveloped.

The Withlacoochee River's headwaters in the Green Swamp are mostly surrounded by agricultural areas and wetlands. Farther downstream, land use is more urbanized near Dade City in Pasco County, but agriculture and wetlands still predominate. From the area around Tsala Apopka Lake downstream to Dunnellon, more land is developed, but agriculture and wetlands remain a dominant part of the landscape. Currently, there are no urban centers on the Withlacoochee River.

Human activities over the last 150 years have significantly altered the character of the Rainbow River, especially in its lower reaches. Historically, the major land uses along the river and surrounding areas were agriculture and mining. The construction of Lake Rousseau in 1909 raised water levels in the lower reaches of the Rainbow River, altering the river's flow and floodplain habitat. Land use immediately surrounding the Rainbow River has slowly shifted from mining and agriculture to mostly residential. Although most of the 73-square-mile watershed is still largely rural, portions of it are rapidly losing their rural character. Within a ten-mile radius of Dunnellon, the population increased 37.5 percent between 1994 and 2004, and this trend is projected to continue.

In western Marion County, residential and commercial growth has occurred at a rapid rate, and with it, potential increases in harmful nitrates in groundwater from fertilizers, septic systems and wastewater treatment.

Nitrate concentrations in the ground water discharging from Rainbow Springs have steadily increased over the last 100 years. The spring recharge area covers 650 square miles in Marion, Levy, and Alachua Counties.

In western Marion County, residential and commercial growth has occurred at a rapid rate, and with it, potential sources and increased loads of nitrates and other contaminants. Demands on the aquifer from increased residential and commercial pumping could affect both water flow and quality.

Although fishing has remained popular in Lake Panasoffkee in recent years, the lake's future as an important recreational resource has been threatened as a result of the loss of historical fish spawning areas and open water. Since the mid-1950s, the lake's fisheries (and the number of fish camps) have declined considerably. Concerns include the growth of invasive aquatic plants, potential pollution sources in the watershed, sediment accumulation, and the potential deleterious effects of lake level stabilization.

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 Withlacoochee Watershed.

Interesting Facts:

  • Withlacoochee is a Native American word meaning "crooked river."
  • The Withlacoochee River is one of two rivers in the state that flows north (the other is the St. Johns).
  • Approximately one-fifth of the state and federally protected vertebrate species in Florida (111) are present in the Green Swamp.
  • Unlike most Florida lakes, the Floridan aquifer is exposed at the land surface within Lake Panasoffkee.
  • The town of Panasoffkee was an important shipping port for timber, citrus, and other goods between the late 1800s and the 1920s, but severe freezes and the depletion of large cypress trees resulted in a population decline in the area after the 1920s.
  • The flow of water over the Inglis Dam in Lake Rousseau produced electric power until 1965.
Bookmark this page:Diggdel.icio.usRedditRedditStumbleUponStumbleUpon