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Caloosahatchee River Watershed

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Image of The Caloosahatchee River - also known as the C-43 Canal -- connects Lake Okeechobee with the Gulf of Mexico.
The Caloosahatchee River - also known as the C-43 Canal -- connects Lake Okeechobee with the Gulf of Mexico.

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: 1,408 square miles

Major Towns:
Fort Myers, Cape Coral, North Fort Myers, Lehigh Acres, LaBelle, Moore Haven, and Clewiston

Counties: Charlotte, Lee, Glades, and Hendry

Major Water Features:
Caloosahatchee River, Lake Hicpochee, Telegraph Swamp and Creek, and Orange River


The Caloosahatchee River and Basin, in southwest Florida, stretch 70 miles westward from the western edge of Lake Okeechobee to San Carlos Bay. The Caloosahatchee River was originally a shallow, meandering river with headwaters in the proximity of Lake Hicpochee. In 1882, Hamilton Disston dug a canal linking Lake Okeechobee through Lake Hicpochee to the Caloosahatchee River. To accommodate navigation, flood control, and land reclamation needs, several drainage districts channeled the river further between 1905 and 1927. Many canals were constructed along its banks in support of the agricultural communities along the river.

Image of The cypress-lined Telegraph Creek is one of the more pristine tributaries of the Caloosahatchee River.
The cypress-lined Telegraph Creek is one of the more pristine tributaries of the Caloosahatchee River. Chris Wessel

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) maintains the modern Caloosahatchee River (C-43 Canal) as part of the Okeechobee Waterway, which links the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean via Lake Okeechobee and the Lucie Canal and River. A series of locks and spillways control the river from Lake Okeechobee to San Carlos Bay.

The estuary, which is flanked by the cities of Cape Coral and Fort Myers, still provides critical wildlife habitat that requires careful management. In 1995, the tidal Caloosahatchee River (as part of the Charlotte Harbor system) was recognized as an "estuary of national significance" and was accepted into the National Estuary Program, forming the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program (CHNEP). The basin is home to one national wildlife refuge, parts of two state aquatic preserves, and one wildlife management area.

Human Impacts

Image of A remnant oxbow on the Caloosahatchee reminds us of its past as a shallow meandering river before it was straightened to help with flood control, irrigation and cross-Florida navigation.
A remnant oxbow on the Caloosahatchee reminds us of its past as a shallow meandering river before it was straightened to help with flood control, irrigation and cross-Florida navigation. Rae Ann Wessel

The Calusa Indians, who inhabited the area from 500 to 1700 A.D., were the first humans to create a physical link between the Caloosahatchee and Lake Okeechobee. Archaeological evidence traces their waterway trading network from Charlotte Harbor up the Caloosahatchee to Lake Okeechobee by way of canals at Ortona.

Spanish conquistadors subsequently occupied the region and within 200 years, the Calusa became extinct. After the French and Indian War in 1763, Florida became English territory, and the Creek Indians moving into the area became known as the Seminoles. Florida was returned again to Spanish rule in 1783 and finally annexed by the United States in 1821. The U.S. government expanded its military presence in the Caloosahatchee region in 1837 at Fort Dulaney (now Punta Rassa) and in 1841 at Fort Harvie (renamed Fort Myers in 1850). The population of the Caloosahatchee Valley was estimated at 200 in the early 1870s. By the 1880s, population growth accelerated as Everglades drainage projects started reshaping the Caloosahatchee River.

Agriculture is the prominent land use in the inland portions of the Caloosahatchee Basin and is expected to remain so in the future. Citrus, the dominant irrigated crop, is followed by sugarcane and beef cattle production. Other economically significant agricultural goods produced in the region include tomatoes, bell peppers, watermelon, squash, and cucumbers. Rice and sweet corn are frequently grown on the same acreage as sugarcane during fallow periods.

The amount and timing of freshwater flows into the lower Caloosahatchee/San Carlos Bay Estuary have been significantly altered, at times denying the system its historical supply of fresh water and at other times deluging it. Agribusiness has dug numerous drainage and irrigation canals in the upper two-thirds of the basin, where crop demands regulate river flows into or out of the adjacent canals. Downstream, considerable urban runoff can enter the lower river and estuary from the extensive network of canals in Lee County. Interceptor waterways on the Cape Coral Peninsula collect runoff from canal systems and store large volumes of brackish water inland of fringing mangrove systems. This practice alters the timing of flow to the Caloosahatchee/San Carlos Bay Estuary. In addition, Lee County and Fort Myers draw about 10 million gallons per day of drinking water from the Caloosahatchee River upstream of Franklin Lock, denying some freshwater flow to the estuary.

The Caloosahatchee/San Carlos Bay Estuary also has had occasional deluges of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee via the Caloosahatchee River, as a result of the management of Lake Okeechobee's lock system. Although management practices have improved, submerged aquatic vegetation, oyster reef coverage, and bay scallop populations have been drastically harmed by the sudden, large freshwater infusions. The nutrient-enriched deluges have also been implicated in algal blooms, including toxic cyanobacteria in the estuarine Caloosahatchee/San Carlos Bay area. Extremely low salinities from these discharges are also thought to be responsible for the presence of a fungus called Aphanomyces invadens and the occurrence of fish with lesions in the Caloosahatchee/San Carlos Bay and St. Lucie Estuaries. The USACOE and South Florida Water Management District currently manage Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River for competing objectives such as flood control, water supply (potable and agricultural), navigation (the Lake Okeechobee Waterway), and ecological restoration (the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan).

In recognition of these impacts, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, South Florida Water Management District, and local governmental, scientific, educational, and citizen organizations are working to develop strategies for protecting and restoring water quality and quantity in the Caloosahatchee Basin.

Interesting Facts:

  • Citrus is the dominant irrigated crop in the Caloosahatchee Basin, occupying over 91,000 acres.
  • Sugarcane closely follows citrus in acreage with an estimated 75,000 acres of production.
  • Beef cattle production is also important to the region, with Hendry, Glades, Charlotte, and Lee Counties having a combined herd of approximately 205,000 head in 1999.
  • The land sales development that began in the 1950s dramatically and permanently changed the character and use of the region. The land was subdivided, canals were dug, and streets were paved. Even though some of these extensive tracts of land were platted and sold 20 years ago, very few houses were initially built. Many of the platted lots and streets still lie empty and overgrown.
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