Florida's Perilous Relationship With Water

Florida is located at the extreme Southeast of the United States covering 58,560 mi2 and 4,308 mi2 of water in lakes, rivers, streams and ponds (Florida Department of State, n.d.).The Florida aquifer is one the most productive in world, covering 100,000 square miles (USGS, 1990). Due to Florida’s unique geography, all of the freshwater springs and aquifers are connected (this can be seen in the maps below).The climate is humid subtropical with an average annual rainfall of 1425mm (NCDC, 2010). Florida’s waters are used for irrigation, recreation, and commerce. These uses create opportunities and threats to Florida’s water resources.

Map of Florida aquifer ( Florida Water Table Elevation (Florida Department of Environmental Protection)

The maps above demonstrate the interconnectivity between the aquifer and water table

Due to Florida’s varied ecosystems, it is home to more exotic species than any other state (Hart et al, 2015). These ecosystems vary in their sensitivity to change, some are very robust, and others are extremely fragile.

Abtew and Trimble (2010) described how El-Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) plays an important role in Florida’s water management. In the Lake Okeechobee watershed, El Niño years produce high rainfall in the dry season of November through May. La Niña years are associated with drought. Extreme droughts are highly likely to occur during La Niña years (Abtew & Trimble, 2010).

Threats to Water

There are many threats to Florida’s water resources, and there are threats caused by water as well. The easiest threats to deal with are those that are artificial, man-made constructs, even though these may be the most widespread. In some cases, the agency designated to protect and manage water resources is the largest threat to the water and ecosystems of Florida. In 2004, the Miccosukee Tribe sued the South Florida Water Management District under the Clean Water Act for pumping water polluted with phosphates and other contaminants from polluted areas to non-polluted areas without a permit. This caused problems such as algae blooms that negatively affected local wildlife. The U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case back to the 11th Circuit where it was decided, in 2011, that South Florida Water Management District must acquire a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit to pump polluted water into the Florida Everglades (MICCOSUKEE TRIBE OF INDIANS OF FLORIDA v. SOUTH FLORIDA WATER MANAGEMENT DISTRICT, 2009).

Other threats include agricultural runoff and discharge from manufacturing processes. These chemical contaminants can alter ecosystems and cause long-term damage. The State of Florida and the EPA are at odds over how to manage this pollution. Florida does not set specific numeric limits, as some ecosystems require higher levels of nutrients than others do, this is where scientific management is needed to deal with these unique situations and Florida law mandated that nutrient levels cannot exceed levels that result in an imbalance in the natural population of flora and fauna (Earle & Perry-Failor, 2010). The EPA, in an unprecedented expansion of authority under the Clean Water Act, is imposing numeric or quantitative limits, versus the State qualitative limits (Earle & Perry-Failor, 2010). This approach is troubling because it can deprive ecosystems of needed nutrients, and poison others.

Additionally, the State of Florida has a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court where Florida is suing Georgia over apportionment of fresh water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basins. Florida claims that Georgia is harming the oyster harvest and other economic activity (Florida v. Georgia, 2013).

The Everglades Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs) have been designed to remove excess phosphorus (P) from agricultural and urban runoff before it goes into the Everglades Protection Area (Kadlec, 2006). Creating natural filters is a better long-term approach to management than mechanical controls because it is easier to manage and less costly over time.

Another threat to water resources and ecosystems is urban growth. At the global scale, the population density of coastal areas is nearly three times that of inland areas, and consequently, land development represents a threat to coastal ecosystems (Nagy, Lockaby, Kalin & Anderson, 2011). According to Bartlett and O’Connor (2000), between 1960 and 1990, Florida experienced growth near 800%. This rapid increase in coastal building has been highly detrimental to sensitive coastal ecosystems, which are vital habitats for shore grasses, sea birds, and turtles. Sea turtles are especially vulnerable to coastal building as it not only reduces habitat, but lights confuse hatchlings (Lutcavage, Plotkin, Witherington & Lutz, 1997). Contamination of water resources including increased nutrients, sediment, bacteria, and metals may result from growing populations, land conversion and management practices, and impervious surfaces (Nagy et al, 2011 ).

Human recreational activity can also be a factor. Scuba diving and ecotourism are big money for Florida. Many divers are not aware of, or prepared for the unique challenges of reef diving or the damage caused by loose or dangling gear (Krieger & Chadwick, 2012). Compiled data shows that pre-dive briefings and skills training can reduce or eliminate the negative impact of divers on reefs (Krieger & Chadwick, 2012). Reefs are beautiful, but fragile and proper care must be taken in observing them.

Other threats have multiple vectors, such as invasive species. Three main invasive species are responsible for the majority of biodiversity and habitat loss related to invasive species, not human activity. These are the Carolina Willow, Burmese Python, and Lionfish. There are methodologies in place to control these species with varying degrees of success.

Quintana-Ascencio et al (2013), describe how flood control methods enacted in the early 20th century led to the spread of the Carolina Willow in the St. John River Basin. The willow pushes out native grasses due to its shade areas and water consumption. The authors detail how fluctuating water levels prevent seeds from sprouting and note that variable water levels spread nutrients over a larger area, enhancing the ecosystem. The Saint Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) is working to reduce these flood control measures and restore herbaceous wetlands (Quintana-Ascencio et al, 2013).

Carolina Willow (Don Hall, University of Florida)

It is believed that the population of Burmese Pythons originated from a breeding facility that was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew and further enhanced by owners releasing pets into the wild (FWC, n.d.). Holbrook & Chesnes document the decline of biodiversity in areas where the snakes are present. The Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that there are over 1,000 pythons in the Everglades. To combat the menace, the State of Florida has instituted a bounty that has resulted in the capture of several hundred individuals. FWC admits that this is small number of snakes, but that the Python Challenge is also designed to raise awareness and activism. Harvey, Perez and Mazzotti (2015) conducted a survey of participants in the 2015 Python Challenge, what they found was that among participants that did not find a python (the majority of participants) that there was a feeling that the problem was overstated and a form of apathy developed, this is counter to FWC’s goals. FWC may want to examine ways to combat these perceptions.

The third species, Lionfish, is also the most prolific. As can be observed by the figure below from the U.S. Geologic Survey, the range of the Lionfish has greatly expanded in 20 years.

U.S. Geological Survey (

Lionfish possess a broad suite of traits that makes them particularly successful invaders and strong negative interactors with native fauna, including defensive venomous spines, cryptic form, color and behavior, habitat generality, high competitive ability, low parasite load, efficient predation, rapid growth, and high reproductive rates (Albins & Hixon, 2011).

Lionfish, Courtesy of FWC

The Lionfish is a voracious eater that consumes most other reef fish. This consumption reduces biodiversity and damages the intricate web that is a coral reef. This has a negative impact not only on the reef, but on tourism as well because no diver wants to dive on a dead reef. To combat the Lionfish the Florida Legislature has enacted regulations that remove the requirement for fishing licenses to harvest Lionfish (FWC, n.d.).

Tracking and capturing invasive species has been made much easier thanks to recent developments in DNA technology. Piaggio et al (2013), describe their success in tracking pythons in the Everglades through the use of environmental DNA. This is DNA that persists in the environment that was until recently unable to be separated from background contamination. The authors suggest further research in using these techniques to track other invasive species and to locate and protect endangered species.

Threats from Water

Much of Florida is sedimentary deposits on a Limestone Base. This is known as karst topography. When limestone is dissolved by water, sinkholes develop. This primarily occurs in areas where surface waters are diverted to subterranean routes along irregular fractures or planar cracks, the water can create or enlarge voids. When these voids are close to the surface, sinkholes result (Keller & Blodgett, 2006, p.211). According to a Florida CFO Division of Consumer Services Handout, titled Sinkholes and Catastrophic Ground Collapse, Florida has more sinkholes than any other state. Between 2006 and 2010 costs to insurers amounted to $1.4 Billion (Florida Senate Interim Report 2010).

Coastal cities such as Miami have an elevated risk from cyclonic storm surge (storm surge caused by tropical depressions, tropical storms, or hurricanes). This can cause seawater to contaminate the city’s public water system, which is fed by the Biscayne aquifer. The Biscayne aquifer is present in Southeastern Florida, reaching a maximum thickness of 240 ft along the Atlantic Coast north of Fort Lauderdale, and thinning westward (Bradner et al, 2005). The characteristics of Biscayne aquifer make it vulnerable to contamination by human activities (Bradner et al, 2005). Eighty percent of the population residing in the study area, as well as most of the population in the Florida Keys, is served by public supply wells that tap the Biscayne aquifer. Total withdrawal from the Biscayne aquifer exceeded 875 million gallons per day in 2000, of which 700 million gallons per day were withdrawn for public supply (Bradner et al, 2005). Human impact from Urban activities, such as turf-grass maintenance in golf courses, have increased concentrations of arsenic in ground water through the use of the herbicide MSMA (Monosodium methyl arsenate, an arsenic based pesticide). Parker, Brown, Bogart, and Love (1945) were exploring saltwater contamination of this aquifer as far back as 1945. They found that, as freshwater was removed from the aquifer it was replaced with denser saltwater, which displaced replenishing freshwater. This has been an ongoing problem for 70 years. Modern water treatment and management practices have mitigated this issue, but it is still an item of concern.


Water is important to Florida. It is used for drinking, seafood production, to transport goods, irrigating crops and recreation. We must be good stewards of this vital resource and care for it so our progeny may enjoy its benefits as we have. We must also be mindful of the threat posed by the water as well. Sinkholes, flooding and storm surge are highly dangerous and destructive. We must also care for the flora and fauna that call the water and wetlands home. Their ecologies and ecosystems are vital to maintaining the quality of life we enjoy. It would be tragic for Florida to arrive at a state where being surrounded by water is meaningless because it is unfit to drink. There are states that endure year-round water restrictions, while we enjoy water-based activities.


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