Restoring the Pieces of the Peace River

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Image of The Peace River disappears into a crevasse in the riverbed. During dry periods and with extended drought a large section of the Upper Peace River has stopped flowing. This is largely do to historic overuse of the aquifer in the region.
The Peace River disappears into a crevasse in the riverbed. During dry periods and with extended drought a large section of the Upper Peace River has stopped flowing. This is largely do to historic overuse of the aquifer in the region. © Charles Cook

Video Transcript

Central Florida's Peace River is in trouble. A long history of agriculture, mining and development combined with drought have caused the river to run dry in sections. DEP and water managers are working to restore the Peace River basin and improve quality of water flowing downstream to Charlotte Harbor.

Narrator: Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Kevin Claridge and Michelle Harmeling are hiking a dusty path where one would expect to find the Peace River. But the only evidence of animals are the remains of dead fish trapped when the water dried up.

For five-miles the Upper Peace River is, quite literally, in pieces. It's shallow in some places. In others, it's a series of detached puddles. Here, it's bone dry.

Before mining, agriculture, development and drought wreaked havoc on the area's water flow, ground water would force its way out of springs or large holes in the limestone riverbed and add to the flow of the river.

Now, it works in reverse. With the aquifer drawn down by humans and stressed by drought, the remaining river water and its fish have drained into the aquifer rather than flow downstream.

Restoring the Upper Peace River watershed will be a monumental undertaking requiring a thorough understanding of the reasons the Peace runs dry. That understanding has come in the form of a Cumulative Impact Study conducted by DEP.

Kevin Claridge - Florida DEP: We looked at it and concluded that it was a combination of many variables, including natural processes such as rainfall, but also human based activities such as urbanization or urban sprawl and growth up and down the basin from Lakeland-Bartow sprawling area to down to Charlotte Harbor, even a lot of urban growth down there. Also, agricultural impacts in the area as well as in the northern part of the basin where we are now is a phosphate mining impact.

Narrator: Strategies to address the impacts have been developed by DEP in coordination with the Southwest Florida Water Management District and basin stakeholders as part of the Peace River Basin Management Plan. The strategies include wetlands restoration projects at places like Tenoroc Fish Management Area, a former phosphate mine and a major restoration effort at Lake Hancock, the largest and one of the most polluted lakes in the watershed.

Among those working to implement those strategies is the Southwest Florida Water Management District's Mark Hammond.

Mark Hammond - Southwest Florida Water Management District: Lake Hancock is one component that will help to restore the minimum flows to the Upper Peace River. We're also looking to treat the water coming out of lake Hancock. Lake Hancock, while it's a great productive system for fish and wildlife, the water quality is some of the worst in the state. And we're looking to treat the water coming out of Lake Hancock because that water coming out of Hancock impacts the Upper Peace River.

Narrator: It also ultimately affects Charlotte Harbor, one of the state's healthiest estuaries and a world-class sportfishing destination located 105 miles downstream from Lake Hancock.

In the spring the tarpon congregate right here and consequently the bull sharks congregate behind the tarpon; it is the world's largest tarpon fishing tournament right here.

That's Judy Ott, a DEP biologist. For several years, she and other scientists have been monitoring fresh water flow and salinity changes and sea grass, which is key indicator of the health of Charlotte Harbor.

In the Charlotte Harbor system, the seagrasses are the fundamental habitat that supports the great complex diversity of fisheries, and mammals and invertebrates.

Narrator: Ott is exploring Charlotte Harbor Estuary with Catherine Corbett a senior scientist with Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program. She explains why the Peace River's flow is so important to the estuary

Judy Ott – Florida DEP: The long-term sustainable health of the estuaries depends on the health of the water that's entering and replenishing the estuaries. And each of the estuaries has a certain turn-around time when it flushes the fresh water away from the Gulf of Mexico water. And alterations in not only the quality but the quantity of water coming into the estuaries as well as the timing interrupt the interconnections that make the estuaries so productive. That complexity is really important to maintain.

Understanding that complexity is critical to helping shape restoration plans in the Peace River watershed.

Our knowledge of how the watershed systems help protect the rivers and ultimately the estuaries has been increasing over the last several years. And so, there are times when you have to go back to existing land uses and restore that connection to the wetlands, to the smaller tributaries, to the smaller streams and into the major rivers like the Peace River.

Narrator: Restoring the connection is what the Peace River Basin Management Plan is trying to address. The process requires sound science, citizen support and, according to Mark Hammond, a long-term commitment to restoration.

Mark Hammond - Southwest Florida Water Management District: This is a continuing process that will occur over many years. The impacts didn't occur in a year and the restoration won't occur over a few years. That's something there that we'll be working on for a long time.

Related Links

Peace River Watershed Overview

DEP Peace River Basin Report

DEP Peace River Cumulative Impact Study

Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program