Southeast Florida enjoys an incredible mix of environ- mental and natural resources not found anywhere else in the world. The subtropical climate with its diversity of freshwater and saltwater systems attracts millions of people to visit the region every year. The environmental resources in Southeast Florida not only define the region, they attract tourists, residents and businesses, and contribute to one of the most agriculturally rich and productive regions found any- where on earth.
The Florida Keys and Monroe County
The Florida Keys is recognized around the world for its diving, snorkeling and fishing. This unique part of the world has parts of three national parks (Everglades, Big Cypress and Dry Tortugas), 11 state parks and four national wildlife refuges. Examples include:
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, established in 1963 as America’s first underwater preserve, draws more than a million visitors annually to explore its nature trails and beaches and to observe the abundant underwater wildlife that inhabits its 70 square nautical miles.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Located 68 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, the dry Tortugas can be reached by ferry or seaplane from Key West. This secluded and pristine area, one of America’s most remote national parks, is home to rare migratory birds and a wealth of marine life.
Biscayne Bay National Park
Within sight of Downtown Miami, Biscayne National Park protects a rare combination of aquamarine waters, emerald islands, and coral reefs. Biscayne Bay National Park also includes evidence of 10,000 years of human history, from pirates and shipwrecks to pineapple farmers and presidents. With 95% of its 172,000 acres covered by water, on a boat excursion is the best way to experience this park.
Florida Bay is a shallow inner-shelf lagoon located at the southern end of the South Florida watershed. Fresh water from the Everglades mixes with salty water from the Gulf of Mexico to form an estuary that is surrounded by mangrove forests and encompasses over 200 mangrove islands. It’s nearly 1,000 square miles of interconnected basins, grassy mud banks, and mangrove islands are nesting, nursery, and feeding grounds for a host of marine animals: the American crocodile, the West Indian manatee, the loggerhead turtle, bottlenose dolphins, a variety of bird species and many game fish. Parts of the bay are also the nursery grounds for the economically valuable pink shrimp and Caribbean spiny lobster. Florida Bay is also important economically, supporting a $59 million shrimp fishery and $22 million stone crab fishery.
We’ve reshaped the natural environment of Southeast Florida dramatically in the last 150 years.
Over six million people live in a place thought of for four hundred years before, according to Marjory Stoneman Douglas, as a “series of vast, miasmic swamps, poisonous lagoons, huge dismal marshes without outlet, a rotting, shallow, inland sea… labyrinths of dark trees hung and looped about with snakes and dripping mosses, malignant with tropical fevers and malarias…” From the perspective of most people living here today, our region is only lately a paradise.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park spans 1.5 million acres and protects an unparalleled landscape that provides important habitat for numerous rare and endangered species like the manatee, American crocodile, and the elusive Florida panther. The park is an international treasure as well: it is a World Heritage Site, an International biosphere reserve, a wetland of international importance, and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty. Everglades National Park was established to preserve a portion of the vast Everglades ecosystem as wildlife habitat and an important habitat for numerous endemic and legally protected plant species. The mosaic of habitats contained within the greater everglades supports an assemblage of plant and animal species not found elsewhere on the planet.
The Everglades Protection Area
Historically, the Everglades covered over 2.S million acres or about 4,000 square miles from the south shore of Lake Okeechobee to the mangrove estuaries of Florida Bay. Today’s Everglades Protection Area (EPA) comprises 863,200 acres in Water Conservation Areas 1, 2A, 2B, 3A, and 3B, 64,000 acres in the Holey Land and Rotenberger Wildlife Management Areas and more than 1.S million acres in Everglades National Park, which includes most of Florida Bay. WCA-1, a 143,200-acre area owned by the state and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, encompasses most of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is located west and southwest of West Palm Beach. Additional lands in the Loxahatchee Refuge, but outside WCA-1, include the 1,604-acre Strazzulla Marsh to the east and about 2,550 acres to the east and west. Covering 134,400 acres, WCA-2 is the smallest of the WCAs. Situated directly south of WCA-1, it stretches over parts of southern Palm Beach and northern Broward Counties. Historically, this area was part of the overland flow system that extended from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. WCA-3 is over twice the size of WCA-1 and WCA-2 combined. Covering 585,600 acres in western Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, it is located west and southwest of WCA-2 and extends approximately 40 miles from north to south and 25 miles from east to west. Currently, it is the only WCA not entirely enclosed by levees. The L-28 Gap, a seven-mile stretch left open in the Midwestern perimeter, permits overland flows to enter the area from the Big Cypress National Preserve and other drain- age basins to the west.
Florida’s 1,200 miles of beaches are the iconic image of the state. When people think of Florida, they think of our beaches. Southeast Florida has some of the most beautiful and accessible beaches in the state, which are economic drivers for attracting residents, visitors and businesses. Just naming some of the most popular beaches in the region bring to mind their importance to our livelihood and enjoyment.
- Blowing Rocks Preserve in Martin County
- Hollywood Beach in Broward County
- Jupiter Beach in Palm Beach County
- Haulover Beach in Miami-Dade County
- South Beach in Miami-Dade County
- Hutchinson Island Beaches in Martin & St. Lucie Counties
- Sebastian Inlet Beach in Indian River County
- Anne’s Beach & Bahia Honda Beach in Monroe County
The Florida Gulf Stream
The Florida Gulf Stream is the beginning of the Gulf Stream, a powerful ocean current that follows the eastern coastline of North America and then crosses the Atlantic Ocean. The Florida Gulf Stream provides a feeding ground for game fish that attracts fishing enthusiasts from around the world. Divers explore the living coral reefs and underwater environment unique to Southeast Florida. The Gulf Stream is also being investigated as an alternative energy source that could help supply energy to our region.
Lake Okeechobee means “big water” in the Seminole Indian language, an appropriate name for a water body whose opposite shore can’t be seen from the water’s edge. With a surface area of 730 square miles, it is the largest lake in the southeastern United States. Despite its impressive size, the lake is shallow, with an average depth of only 9 feet. Lake Okeechobee and its wetlands are at the center of a much larger watershed, the Greater Everglades, that stretches from the Kissimmee River through the
Everglades and finally into Florida Bay. Lake Okeechobee is also a key component of South Florida’s water supply and flood control systems. Lake Okeechobee provides natural habitat for fish, wading birds and other wildlife, and it supplies essential water for people, farms and the environment. The lake provides flood protection and attracts boating and recreation enthusiasts from around the world. It is also home to sport and commercial fisheries. The lake’s health has been threatened in recent decades
by excessive nutrients from agricultural and urban activities in the lake’s watershed, by harmful high and low water levels and by the spread of exotic vegetation. Despite these impacts, Lake Okeechobee continues to be a vital freshwater resource for South Florida, with irreplaceable natural and community values.
Lake Worth & Indian River Lagoons
Southeast Florida includes two of the most diverse and environmentally rich brackish water lagoons in north America. The Lake Worth Lagoon is located in Palm Beach County. It runs parallel to the coast separated from the Atlantic Ocean by barrier beaches including Palm Beach Island. The lagoon is connected to the Atlantic ocean by two permanent man-made inlets. The Indian River Lagoon is a grouping of three lagoons: Mosquito Lagoon, Banana River, and the Indian River, on the Atlantic Coast of Florida. Its full length is 1S6 miles, extending from Ponce de Leon Inlet in Volusia County to
Jupiter Inlet in Palm Beach County. Lake Okeechobee is connected to the lagoon by the Okeechobee Waterway, which meets the St.Lucie River near Stuart. The Indian River Lagoon is North America’s most diverse estuary with more than 2,100 species of plants and 2,200 species of animals, including 3S that are listed as threatened or endangered — more than any other estuary in North America. The lagoon also has one of the most diverse bird populations in America. Both lagoons are being threatened by excess freshwater from Lake Okeechobee and local stormwater basins and should be protected by specific actions outlined in this plan.
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Agriculture is a major economic driver for Southeast Florida. The most recent data from the US Census Bureau shows that the seven counties region produce agriculture products worth $2.1 billion in 2007, with Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties ranking #1 and #2 in the state respectively. Those two counties alone produced nearly $1.6 billion worth of agriculture products in 2007. Agriculture also contributes to the security of the region, state and U.S. by providing a domestic source of food supply. We are the only tropical growing climate in the Continental US.
Everglades Agriculture Area
The Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), comprising about 741,120 acres, is situated almost entirely in Palm Beach County. This important regional economic resource includes sugarcane farms, winter vegetable and sod farms, and cattle ranches. It is the largest contiguous agricultural land mass in the region.
A Sampling of the Benefits Provided by Agricultural Lands
Retaining farmland and a strong agricultural economy brings multiple potential public benefits, including possibilities to:
- Make a direct economic contribution through off- and on- farm job creation, purchasing local products and services, and supplying goods to food processing companies.
- Provide fresh healthy local food that reduces reliance on imported food and avoids the need for transporting it long distances (this helps with goals to reduce green- house gas emissions).
- Provide greater biodiversity and habitat for wildlife.
- Store and filter water, reduce flooding, help recharge ground water, and lead to cleaner streams, rivers, and coastal estuaries.
- Improve air quality and sequester carbon (an important strategy in climate change mitigation plans).
- Provide opportunities for agro- and eco-tourism.
- Serve as a source of locally produced energy to reduce reliance on imported oil.
- Retain the rural character and heritage that residents of ten enjoy and identify as important to their quality of life.
- Broaden outdoor recreational opportunities.
- Foster a stronger social structure in communities.
- Make farmland available for future generations.
- When integrated through design, add value to housing units in new compact communities and make them more competitive in the marketplace. *1
Economic Pressure on Agriculture
To retain agriculture and its multiple economic, environmental, and quality of life benefits it brings, the region must address the economic pressures on agricultural landowners to get out of farming or ranching and sell their land for development. This requires engaging farmers in the conversation about growth and putting a set of planning tools in place that can be used in combination or separately to help ensure the continuing presence of agriculture and offset the pressures for the development of productive farmland. The St. Lucie Western Lands Study examined these issues and concluded that:
- Viable agriculture is the backbone of maintaining a functioning network of agriculture, open space, and natural areas and providing multiple services from which the public benefits and enjoys.
- Any program to maintain agriculture must address the current pressures on farming and help prevent the “switch point” – when the income generated from agriculture is not sufficient to sustain farming and/or when land is more valuable for development than for agriculture.
- If development offers a higher return, agricultural land will be converted to development.
In order to avoid an unbalanced switch from agricultural uses to development, landowners must be able to realize revenues that equal or exceed those provided by development alternatives. Finding those new sources of revenue is all the more important given the current threats to the agricultural economy. agriculture in Southeast Florida has been faced with perfect storm hurricane damage, increased pests and diseases, and growing global competition coupled with rising costs. *2
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In order to retain rural lands, three things must happen:
- Agriculture must be profitable both now and in the future, providing farmers with sufficient revenue to remain in farming.
- A working Transfer of Development Rights (or Purchase of development Rights) program must be developed to maintain the value of lands that remain in agriculture.
- The combination of future revenue must provide to the landowner a value as high as or higher than that of the ranchette or other suburban development alternative. *3
Water is critical to sustaining a growing economy. It is ultimately, the region’s life force. although Southeast Florida abounds in water, only a small portion is suitable for drinking. As the region grows, that limited freshwater supply will become even more depleted. The region needs to conserve its freshwater, retain rain and ground water, and increase its reliance on the desalinization of salt and brackish water to supplement the supply of fresh water. It must be noted that desalinization will be more expensive than historic freshwater supplies because of the infrastructure and energy needed to convert brackish water into drinking water. Volatile commodity and energy prices could dramatically increase the price of the region’s fresh water supply. Further, the use of energy to meet the region’s water supply needs may run counter to the region’s need to reduce greenhouse gases.
Southeast Florida has exceptionally low levels of fresh water re- use and inadequate and aging water infrastructure. The number of communities on septic systems and the quality of outfall flowing directly into the estuaries and ocean also presents problems. All will be exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, specifically sea level rise, on the region’s water supply and its flood control and water infrastructure. Particularly in the most southern parts of the region, saltwater is already intruding into drinking water well fields and storm water retention areas, and rising water tables are causing increased flooding in inland areas.
Addressing those complex issues will require greater coordination among what today are fragmented utility providers. A regional strategy would help water providers, residents, and businesses collectively create a water supply plan that would address the region’s long-term water infrastructure needs and make more sustainable use of its limited fresh water supply.
Human Impacts to the Natural System
Historically, the St. Lucie River was a freshwater river with no permanent connection to either the Atlantic Ocean or Lake Okeechobee. Beginning in the late 19th century, the river and its watershed underwent a series of modifications for navigation, flood control and water supply purposes. The St. Lucie River is today part of the Central & Southern Florida Project, one of the world’s largest interconnected public works systems. The C-44 Canal now connects Lake Okeechobee to the South Fork of the river.
In addition, the C-23 and C-24 canals move storm water runoff directly into the north Fork of the river instead of allowing natural systems to gradually absorb the water. These changes illustrate the interconnected nature of drainage and public water supply.
Drainage for flood control in South Florida has caused the loss of roughly 6 million acre-feet of water storage, half of which came from Lake Okeechobee. in the urbanized area of Southeast Florida, approximately 2 million acre-feet of freshwater is now discharged directly to tide on an annual basis from canals and urban drainage systems, causing adverse impacts to coastal estuaries. While this drainage provides flood control, water lost to tide is not available for use during the dry season. The decrease in storage capacity of the South Florida and everglades ecosystem has resulted in insufficient and improper timing of water deliveries to meet the needs of Everglades and Florida Bay restoration efforts, as well as the Caloosahatchee, Indian River, St. Lucie and Lake Worth Lagoon estuaries, Biscayne Bay, urban areas and agriculture. *4 Rising water tables due to climate change will affect crop stability. In the southern counties, excessive watering will damage crop yields, destroying some of the more sensitive crops. Citrus blight is spread partly by water (namely rain and hurricanes) but adding to the water table may prove to severely impact orange crops.
Rainfall Driven System *5
South Florida has essentially two seasons: the five-month rainy season from June through October, when 70 percent of the year’s rain falls, and the seven-month dry season from November through May.
- Southeast Florida averages 53 inches of rainfall each year. Peak rainfall varies from 4 to 18 inches over one day; 6 to 20 inches over three days; and 8 to 22 inches over five days.
- Major long-term droughts occur and have negative impacts on agriculture, the environment and public water supplies, primarily due to a lack of storage and flexibility in managing the regional drainage system.
- Miami and other coastal cities enjoy an abundance of rain, but it is not stored anywhere. During periods of drought, these cities become very vulnerable.
1. Source: St. Lucie County Western Lands Study – Options and Opportunities for the Future, 2010
2. Source: St. Lucie County Western Lands Study – Options and Opportunities for the Future, 2010
3. Source: St. Lucie County Western Lands Study – Options and Opportunities for the Future, 2010; also Committee for a Sustainable Treasure Coast Final Report, 2005
4. Source: Everglades Interim Report , Chapter 10, C&SF Project Restudy, 1998
5. Source: Padowski, J. C., and J. W. Jawitz, 2012. Water availability and vulnerability of 225 large cities in the United States, Water Resources Research, 48, W12529, doi:10.1029/2012WR012335