Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed

Southwest Florida

Landscape at a Glance

A map showing the Southwest Florida focal area.

Map of the Southwest Florida focal area by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

The Southwest Florida Focal Area includes the coastal areas, watersheds and uplands from Charlotte Harbor to the Ten Thousand Islands region. This area contains intact sub-tropical ecosystems, expansive public conservation lands and a prevalence of large agricultural operations. Southwest Florida contributes the second largest input of freshwater into the Gulf and can be divided into two major watersheds in the Greater Everglades ecosystem – the Caloosahatchee basin and the Big Cypress basin. A third source of freshwater input in southwest Florida is the Peace-Myakka basin, which like the Caloosahatchee basin, drains into the Charlotte Harbor estuary.

Salt tolerant trees grow on the waters edge with a city in the distance.

Ten Thousand Island NWR. Photo by Steve Hillebrand, USFWS.

Scattered throughout this focal area are numerous natural resources of regional, national and international significance. Corkscrew Swamp, a vital link between several Florida watersheds, has the world’s largest remaining virgin bald cypress forest and is designated as a Wetland of International Importance. The Ten Thousand Islands NWR is part of the largest expanse of mangrove forest in North America. Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is the orchid and bromeliad capital of the continent with 44 native orchids and 14 native bromeliad species, while Yucca Pens is the largest area of hydric pine flatwoods remaining in Southwest Florida. Other vital public lands in the focal area include J. N. “Ding” Darling NWR, Big Cypress National Preserve, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Picayune Strand and the Florida Panther NWR. Southwest Florida provides the only remaining contiguous habitat for the endangered Florida panther.

In the Southwest Florida Focal Area, the highest conservation need involves the restoration of hydrologic processes and landscapes. Intensive urban and agricultural development in this region of Florida has led to drastic disruptions of the natural hydrologic regime (and subsequent damage to coastal estuaries from large, rapid pulses of freshwater in the wet season and reduced flows in the dry season); degradation of water quality; and habitat loss and fragmentation that significantly threatens the ecological integrity of the region. Another critical conservation need is the management of non-native plants and animals that have invaded upland and coastal habitats, causing negative impacts to ecosystem functions and posing threats to imperiled species. This represents a great challenge for conservation management in Florida; it is estimated that as much as one quarter of taxa living in Florida are non-native, and millions of acres of land and water are dominated by nonindigenous species. The Service supports the synergistic benefits of multidisciplinary, collaborative efforts by our partners to implement large-scale landscape restoration and combat the threats of invasive species.

Target Species

Improving water quality and managing water quantity through restoration of sheetflow will benefit colonial waterbirds, a key group of priority species in this focal area. Tying the extent of these actions to the population objectives for these species helps identify the magnitude of effort necessary to meet our goals. This focal area supports a significant portion of the population objectives established for the whole of Peninsular Florida for many species, including the federally listed wood stork (10,000 pairs); the little blue heron (5,000 pairs);the reddish egret (275 pairs); and the white ibis (40,000 pairs). Similarly, a primary interest in restoring and managing forested habitats will assist in the recovery of the endangered Florida panther (3 viable populations of >240 individuals maintained for >12 years).

Although habitat management in support of colonial waterbirds and the Florida panther are the highest priorities for the Service in this focal area, we also recognize the value of this region for many other species. Of particular interest are two endangered species, the West Indian manatee and the smalltooth sawfish (managed by NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service), as well as beach-nesting birds. The Service will continue to work with partners in support of efforts to achieve the population objectives for these species as well.

A large brown cat walks through the low brush.

Florida panther. Photo by Tom MacKenzie, USFWS.

While the Florida panther and other terrestrial and avian trust resource species draw the majority of our attention in this focal area, the Service also has been committed to restoring hydrology in Southwest Florida for many years. The area is hydrologically altered far beyond restoration that can be developed specific to the needs of the West Indian manatee or the smalltooth sawfish. As such, our trust resource species stand to benefit from a watershed scale restoration effort that includes improvements in water quality, increases in freshwater flow to the estuary, better practices for wastewater treatment, and more efficient agriculture and municipal water use. Additionally, these actions will improve conditions for many commercially and recreationally important marine fish like red drum and tarpon; invertebrate species like blue crabs, shrimp and oysters; and inland aquatic species like largemouth bass. Managing the forests in this region under appropriate hydrologic regimes will aid species like the state-threatened Big Cypress fox squirrel and the Everglades mink. The benefits accrued in marsh habitats and along coastal islands will benefit endemic at-risk subspecies like the Sanibel Island rice rat, the insular hispid cotton rat and the Sherman’s short-tailed shrew.

High Priority Actions Based on the Service’s Vision

Complete key projects in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan such as the C-43, Tamiami Trail and Central Everglades Planning projects to improve freshwater inflows from the Caloosahatchee River.

Next Steps

  • Continue phased construction of the C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir Project that was authorized for funding by Congress in 2014. The South Florida Water Management District has initiated the first phases of the construction, including the demolition of structures, the clearing of forests and the preloading of pump stations.
  • Complete Phase 2 of the Tamiami Trail Project, which would add an additional 2.6 miles of elevated roadway (i.e., bridge) in the western project area. Phase 1 of the project, which constructed a one-mile bridge in the eastern project area, was completed in 2013.
  • Construct and implement the Central Everglades Planning Project to divert up to 200,000 acre-feet of water per year from Lake Okeechobee south to the Everglades, thus reducing harmful lake water discharges to the Caloosahatchee River Estuary. Completion of the Tamiami Trail Project is essential to facilitating the movement of water diverted by the Central Everglades Planning Project south to Everglades National Park.

Restore hydrologic processes of larger watersheds to restore and enhance wetlands and aquatic habitats for wetland-dependent species. This may require acquisition through fee acquisition or easements of properties in some cases to facilitate restoration actions such as restoration of sheetflow.

Next Steps

  • Implement the Charlotte Harbor Flatwoods Initiative project that will increase base flows, create water storage capacity for wet season runoff, reduce pollutant loads to tidal waters and restore sheetflow to more than 55,000 acres, which will ultimately improve habitat for estuarine species.
  • Restore as much as 57,000 acres of habitat in the Belle Meade Flowway by hydrologic improvements and water quality treatment features to improve water quantity and quality in coastal areas such as Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Collier Seminole State Park and Ten Thousand Islands NWR.
  • Establish freshwater flows to coastal areas to maintain targeted annual average salinity for adjacent estuaries and provide direct benefits to several listed species.
  • Achieve yearly reductions in the amount of total nitrogen entering waterways thereby improving the overall water quality of the focal area.
  • Restore and protect headwater and tributary flows to the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve by implementing the Estero Creek and Headwaters Flowway project, including the connection of the inland Corkscrew Swamp, tidal Caloosahatchee watersheds and elements of the J.N. Ding Darling NWR.
  • Complete the Fakahatchee Flowway project to positively impact 9,800 acres and downstream estuaries by: restoring hydrologic and fire regimes; increasing biological, hydrological and landscape connectivity and productivity; increasing sheetflow; eliminating point source discharges; and minimizing non-native species.

Continue to work with partners to restore habitat for imperiled species (such as the endangered Florida panther) by using frequent prescribed fire and invasive species control.

Next Steps

A man holding a snake with a billboard on reporting invasive species in the background.

Public awareness campaign for large, invasive constrictor snakes. Photo by Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

  • Using the Southwest Florida Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area partnership model, foster public-private relationships for the treatment of invasive plants on public and private lands.
  • Reduce invasive plants by 95 percent after initial treatment using mechanical or chemical means within the Service’s Florida Panther Recovery Focus Areas and dry prairie habitats on lands spanning private-public land boundaries.
  • Utilize and/or create financial incentive programs to treat invasive species along privately owned canals and coastal areas in order to reduce the impact of invasive plant seed sources from private lands onto adjacent conservation lands.
  • Create and implement Early Detection and Rapid Response procedures for areas newly infested with non-native species. Using such an approach that addresses smaller infestations of new invasives is often an easier and cheaper way to increase the likelihood of successful eradication.
  • Improve education and outreach through the use of workshops, workdays and other outreach events on the impacts of invasive plants on the fragile habitat and overall Southwest Florida focal area ecosystem that is home to 15 listed or candidate plants and animals.
  • Provide technical and financial assistance to private landowners to develop and implement an integrated land management approach (e.g., using both mechanical roller chopping and prescribed fire) for dry prairie and pine flatwood habitats (especially those adjacent to public conservation lands) that benefit imperiled species who rely on healthy, fire maintained habitats for food and cover.