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The Water Channel

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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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Florida-Friendly Interactive Yard

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Learn about Florida-Friendly Landscaping Techniques

Fertilizers and pesticides used on residential and commercial landscapes are harming Florida's waterways. Irrigation of lawns is one of the largest singles uses of water from the aquifer. Find out how you can reduce your impact in your front and back yards.

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Learn About Your Watershed

Florida Keys Watershed

Image of Anglefish glide along a reef in the 3200 square mile Florida Keys National Marine Santuary.
Anglefish glide along a reef in the 3200 square mile Florida Keys National Marine Santuary. Florida Keys NMS

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: 2,476 square miles

Major Towns: Key Largo, Tavernier, Islamorada, Layton, Key Colony Beach, Marathon and Key West

Counties: Monroe County

Major Water Features:
Florida Bay, Southwest Florida Shelf, Gulf of Mexico, Florida Straits, and Atlantic Ocean

Overview

The Florida Keys watershed, comprising 1,700 islands, is unique in that it consists almost entirely of water (estuaries or open marine waters). The basin is broken up into the upper Keys, middle Keys, and lower Keys.

The upper Keys, from Key Largo south to Lower Matecumbe Key, contain much of the remaining tropical hardwood hammock habitat in the Keys. The coral reefs on the Atlantic side of the upper Keys are well developed and well protected by the islands from the turbidity and fresh water often found in Florida Bay, but these reefs are also the most visited and vulnerable to damage from direct human contact.

Image of Extensive seagrass beds are critical to the health of the Florida Keys ecosystem.
Extensive seagrass beds are critical to the health of the Florida Keys ecosystem. Florida Keys NMS

The middle Keys, which extend from Long Key southwestward to the end of the Seven Mile Bridge, contain extensive grass beds and hard-bottom communities that support both sport and commercial fisheries. The islands of the middle Keys are farther apart than those of the upper Keys, and so Florida Bay water readily flows through the major tidal passes. As this water can be more turbid, coral reefs are either absent or poorly developed on the Atlantic side.

The lower Keys include all the remaining Keys south and west of the western end of the Seven Mile Bridge to Key West. Due to the isolation of the lower Keys and their relatively large land area, the coral reefs on the Atlantic side of the islands are well developed, as they are protected from the turbidity and variable salinities of Florida Bay.

Image of The Florida Keys reef tract is the most extensive living coral reef system in North American waters and the third largest system in the world.
The Florida Keys reef tract is the most extensive living coral reef system in North American waters and the third largest system in the world. Florida Keys NMS

The lower Keys also support a number of indigenous species that are found nowhere else, but because their populations were always fairly small, habitat loss and human interference have threatened many of these species with extinction. Of particular note are the endangered Key deer, whose range is limited by the availability of fresh water. They use pinelands and hardwood hammocks for feeding activities and mangrove swamps for shelter from the heat during the day.

Efforts to protect the natural beauty of the Keys and Florida Bay include the establishment of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge in 1908, Fort Jefferson National Monument in 1935 (renamed Dry Tortugas National Park in 1992), Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge in 1938, Everglades National Park in 1947, Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge in 1957, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in 1960, Biscayne National Monument in 1968 (renamed Biscayne National Park in 1980), Coupon Bight State Aquatic Preserve and Lignumvitae Key State Aquatic Preserve in 1969, Biscayne Bay State Aquatic Preserve in 1974, Big Cypress National Preserve in 1974, and Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in 1980.

Other significant protected areas include Bahia Honda State Park, Curry Hammock State Park, Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, Indian Key Historic State Park, Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, Long Key State Park, San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve State Park, and Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park. In 1990, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was established, covering 2,800 square nautical miles of the Keys and surrounding waters.

Human Impacts

Image of Water quality is affected by effluent from septic tanks, stormwater runoff, spills of hazardous materials, and discharges from shallow injection wells that can move through the porous limestone soil to open waters or canals.
Water quality is affected by effluent from septic tanks, stormwater runoff, spills of hazardous materials, and discharges from shallow injection wells that can move through the porous limestone soil to open waters or canals. © Florida Keys NMS

The construction of the Key West Extension of the Flagler Railroad, and then the Overseas Highway, followed by the Florida Keys Aqueduct (a water pipeline to Key West), made the development of the Keys possible. From the 1950s to the 1970s, many upland areas were cleared for residential and commercial use, and a large number of finger-fill canals were dredged to satisfy the demand for waterfront property. Canal construction ended in the mid-1970s, when the adverse environmental impacts became obvious.

Human effects on water quality in the Florida Keys Basin come from two main sources: runoff from the south Florida mainland and discharges from the Keys themselves. Runoff from the mainland carries nutrients and other pollutants from agricultural and developed areas into Florida Bay. Drainage projects on the mainland are often artificially manipulated for flood control or water retention, altering the amount and timing of freshwater flows and causing unusually high or low salinity in Florida Bay. Longshore currents also carry water from the Caloosahatchee River, Peace River, and small coastal rivers in Lee and Collier County into western Florida Bay.

On the Keys themselves, nearshore waters are influenced by effluent from septic tanks and cesspits, stormwater runoff, spills of hazardous materials, and discharges to shallow injection wells that can move quickly through the porous limestone soil to open waters or adjacent canals. Canals with little flushing often accumulate organic materials and other pollutants, and may have poor water quality.

Image of Boaters who run aground on seagrass beds are subject to state and/or federal fines and may be required to pay costs for seagrass restoration.
Boaters who run aground on seagrass beds are subject to state and/or federal fines and may be required to pay costs for seagrass restoration. Everglades National Park

The oceanic waters west and south of the Keys generally have good water quality and dilute pollutants from the land, but occasionally carry shipping discharges (such as tar balls) and water quality problems (such as red tide and Mississippi River discharge) from distant areas via the Loop Current and the Gulf Stream.

In recognition of these impacts, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA) Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), Florida Department of Community Affairs (FDCA), Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Southeast Environmental Research Center (SERC) (Florida International University), and local governmental, scientific, educational, and citizen organizations are working to develop strategies for protecting and restoring water quality and quantity in the Florida Keys.

Interesting Facts:

  • Of the 1,700 islands in the Keys, only 51 are connected to or by the Overseas Highway (U.S. 1), and fewer than 70 are inhabited.
  • The Keys has approximately 80,492 permanent, year-round residents; this number increases by about 25,000 people during peak tourism season during the winter months.
  • The current Key deer population is estimated at around 300, up from the 1955 estimate of 25 to 80. These animals are small for a deer-about the size of a large dog.
  • Before direct access from the mainland existed, the major land uses in the Keys included limited agriculture (pineapples and limes), military forts and bases, and the marine support industry (for sponging, fishing, and wrecking).
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