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Restoring the Pieces of the Peace River

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. DEP and water managers are working to restore the Peace River watershed.



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Wetlands Restoration Helps the Upper Peace River

Innovative wetlands restoration and protection projects are taking place statewide including the Upper Peace River watershed.



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Peace River Watershed Excursion

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Take a Virtual Trip Through the Peace River Basin

Experience Peace River basin ecosystems and habitats, and learn what’s being done to protect this unique and vulnerable Florida river for future generations. (SWFWMD)

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Learn About Your Watershed

Peace River Watershed

  • Overview
  • Restoration News
  • Watershed Maps
  • Photos & Graphics
  • Contacts/Resources
Image of The Peace River takes on estuarine characteristics as it approaches Charlotte Harbor
The Peace River takes on estuarine characteristics as it approaches Charlotte Harbor Russell Sparkman

Watershed Stats

Watershed Size: 2,350 square miles

Counties:
Polk, Manatee, Sarasota, and Charlotte Counties; small portions of DeSoto and Hardee Counties

Major Towns: Lakeland, Auburndale, Haines City, Winter Haven, Bartow, unincorporated Port Charlotte and Cape Coral, Fort Meade, Zolfo Springs, Bowling Green, Arcadia

Major Water Features: Green Swamp; Peace River and its tributaries; and numerous lakes, including Lakes Gibson, Crago, Parker, Hancock, Lena Run, Smart, Rochelle, Haines, Maude, Buckeye, Conine, Crystal, Eloise, Shipp, May, Howard, Cannon, Hartridge, Idylwild, Jessie, Blue, Elbert, and Banana; Hollingsworth Lake; Lulu Outlet; Fannie Outlet; and Peace Creek Canal

Overview

The Peace River begins in southwest Florida's Green Swamp, a large, low-lying area that is vital to the region's water supply. Lake Hancock, a 4,500-acre lake in the headwaters of the Peace River watershed, southeast of Lakeland, extends 120 miles downriver to Charlotte Harbor. Rainfall provides most of the river's water. Above the town of Arcadia, the river channel is defined and winding; below Arcadia, the floodplain widens, exceeding a mile wide in some places. The river discharges into northeastern Charlotte Harbor, Florida's second largest estuary.

Image of Peace Creek is a major tributary of the Peace River, beginning in the northeastern portion of the basin near the City of Winter Haven. The Winter Haven area of the Central Florida Ridge also contains numerous lakes that are inter-connected to each other and to Peace Creek.
Peace Creek is a major tributary of the Peace River, beginning in the northeastern portion of the basin near the City of Winter Haven. The Winter Haven area of the Central Florida Ridge also contains numerous lakes that are inter-connected to each other and to Peace Creek. Charles Cook

The Charlotte Harbor Estuary (downstream of U.S. Highway 41) is designated as an Outstanding Florida Water. It is also an estuary of national significance under the National Estuary Program and a SWFWMD Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) priority waterbody for restoration and protection. Considered one of the healthiest in the nation, it contains extensive seagrass meadows, mangrove swamps, and salt marshes, which serve as nurseries for shrimp, crabs, and fish. In turn, these species support important commercial and recreational fishing industries.

In 2000, the human population in the watershed was about 366,000. Land use is predominantly agricultural, consisting mainly of pasturelands for cattle and citrus cultivation. The watershed is also the location of the nation's largest phosphate mines, making Florida one of the largest suppliers in the world of phosphate for use in fertilizer. About 180,000 acres of land in the "bone valley" have been mined for phosphate since the early 1900s.

Phosphate mined in the watershed is used to satisfy 25 percent of the world's demand and 75 percent of the U.S. demand-almost all of it used to produce fertilizers.

The Green Swamp, which contains the river's headwaters, was officially designated an Area of Critical State Concern in 1974. About 55,000 acres of the watershed are currently in some form of conservation. The largest conservation area is the 67,426-acre Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area in Charlotte County, about 35,000 acres of which lies in the watershed.

A number of major restoration activities are under way in the watershed, particularly in the Peace River region. The objectives of the SWFWMD's Upper Peace River Watershed Restoration Initiative include the restoration of surface water storage and flows and aquifer recharge, as well as improvement to water quality and ecosystems that have been lost, degraded, or significantly altered. The initiative will provide a critical link to a major greenway that extends from Florida's lower west coast up through the Peace River watershed and Green Swamp, and north to the Ocala National Forest. Projects undertaken through the initiative involve Lake Hancock, the upper Peace River, and the Peace Creek Canal.

Human Impacts

Image of At left, Kissengen Spring, located four miles southeast of Bartow, was a popular recreational area. It stopped flowing in 1950 due to over pumping of the aquifer in the region, largely by the phosphate industry. When the spring flowed, it discharged about 20 million gallons of water daily into a spring pool from a 17-foot deep cavern. Today the spring basin is overgrown with native and invasive plants and there's little evidence of its former glory. Overuse of groundwater by industry, agriculture and residents in the upper and lower basins continues to cause problems in the Peace River watershed.
At left, Kissengen Spring, located four miles southeast of Bartow, was a popular recreational area. It stopped flowing in 1950 due to over pumping of the aquifer in the region, largely by the phosphate industry. When the spring flowed, it discharged about 20 million gallons of water daily into a spring pool from a 17-foot deep cavern. Today the spring basin is overgrown with native and invasive plants and there's little evidence of its former glory. Overuse of groundwater by industry, agriculture and residents in the upper and lower basins continues to cause problems in the Peace River watershed.

The alteration of wetlands, streams, and lakes combined with natural periods of drought has greatly diminished the flow of water in the Peace River and its tributaries, and has altered ecosystems, particularly in the northern portions of the watershed. The most notable alteration was the construction of the Peace Creek Canal in the early 1900s to drain wetlands for agricultural purposes. Water quality in Lake Hancock is among the poorest in the state, characterized by persistent blue-green algal blooms, high nutrient concentrations, and low dissolved oxygen (DO) levels. The lake receives wastewater from the Lakeland area and untreated stormwater from agricultural and industrial activities.

Increasing withdrawals of ground water from the aquifer for human use have also adversely impacted the health and ecology of the watershed. Other impacts include pollution from stormwater runoff from farms, yards, and urban areas.

Image of The Peace River disappears into a crevasse in the riverbed. During periods of 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 periods of 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

In the past 60 years, developed land uses-including phosphate mining, agriculture, and urban development-have increased from 13 percent to nearly 65 percent of the watershed area.

In addition, significant amounts of native habitat have been lost, including about two-thirds of the watershed's native uplands and more than half of its wetlands. In the past 60 years, developed land uses-including agriculture (cattle, citrus, and row cops), urban development, and phosphate mining-have increased from 13 percent to nearly 65 percent of the watershed area.

In recognition of these impacts, FDEP, the SWFWMD, and local governmental, scientific, educational, and citizen organizations are working to develop strategies for protecting and restoring water quality in the Peace River watershed.

Interesting Facts:

  • The watershed contains some of the finest remaining examples of scrub habitat in Florida, significant riverine floodplains, expanses of dry prairie, and numerous lakes.
  • The Winter Haven Chain of Lakes is a system of 19 interconnected lakes with a combined surface area of 7,000 acres in and around the city of Winter Haven in north-central Polk County.
  • The river is a major source of fresh water to Charlotte Harbor, an important fishing and recreational area that also provides nursery habitat for numerous commercial and recreational fish and shellfish, and shelters species such as the West Indian manatee.
  • Charlotte Harbor Estuary is recognized internationally for sport fishing and is the location of the world's largest tarpon fishing tournament.
  • Phosphate mined in the Peace River watershed is used to satisfy 25 percent of the world's demand and 75 percent of the U.S. demand. Nearly all of the phosphate mined is used in fertilizers for agriculture. Phosphates are also used in products such as livestock feed supplements, vitamins, soft drinks, and toothpaste.
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