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Southern Coastal Watershed Excursion

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Take a Virtual Trip Through the Sarasota & Myakka River Basins

Explore the issues and impacts of the Southern Coastal region on this tour starting miles from the Gulf. (SWFWMD)

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Florida-Friendly Interactive Yard

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Learn about Florida-Friendly Landscaping Techniques

Fertilizers and pesticides used on residential and commercial landscapes are harming Florida's waterways. Find out how you can reduce your impact in your front and back yards.

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Learn About Your Watershed

Sarasota Bay Watershed

  • Overview
  • Restoration News
  • Watershed Maps
  • Photos & Graphics
  • Contacts/Resources
Image of Boats on a tranquil Sarasota Bay.
Boats on a tranquil Sarasota Bay. Dana K. Williams, FDEP

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: 52 square miles of open water, draining 150 square miles
Counties: Manatee, Sarasota, and Charlotte Counties

Major Towns: Sarasota, Venice, Bradenton, Longboat Key, Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach, Osprey, and Anna Maria

Major Water Features:
Sarasota Bay, Little Sarasota Bay, Dryman Bay, Blackburn Bay, Phillippi Creek, Catfish Creek, North Creek, South Creeek, Shakett Creek/Cow Pen Slough, and Pearce Canal

Overview

The Sarasota Bay watershed, in southwest Florida, contains some of Florida's most beautiful and productive estuaries; barrier islands; many wetlands; small, tidally influenced coastal streams; and a few longer, mainly freshwater stream and canal systems. Sarasota Bay extends from Anna Maria Sound and Palma Sola Bay, in the north, to Venice Inlet, in the south.

Image of Lemon Bay Aquatic Preserve is a long, narrow and shallow with a diverse network of mangroves, marsh grass, and vast expanses of seagrass meadows which cover most of the underwater habitats.
Lemon Bay Aquatic Preserve is a long, narrow and shallow with a diverse network of mangroves, marsh grass, and vast expanses of seagrass meadows which cover most of the underwater habitats. FDEP

Because of the watershed's natural beauty, it has many resort communities and large populations of retirees, seasonal visitors, tourists, and others. Land use in the watershed is a mixture of urban, agricultural, and wetland or open-water habitats. Coastal areas, including the barrier islands, are extensively urbanized. In 1995, urbanized areas accounted for over one-third of the total area. Inland, there are large agricultural areas dominated by rangeland, pastureland, and row crop farming. A sizable intact forested area lies inland from lower Sarasota Bay.

The EPA designated Anna Maria Sound, Palma Sola Bay, Sarasota Bay, Roberts Bay, Little Sarasota Bay, and Blackburn Bay as an Estuary of National Significance in 1988, and established the Sarasota Bay National Estuary Program (SBNEP) in 1995. DEP has also designated these estuaries as Outstanding Florida Waters (OFWs). In 1995, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) placed Sarasota Bay on its Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) Program list of priority waterbodies for restoration and protection.

The Sarasota Bay watershed contains some of Florida's most beautiful and productive estuaries.

Human Impacts

Freshwater wetlands in the Sarasota Bay watershed declined in size by about one-third between 1975 and 1991, with the greatest losses occurring in the upper watershed, where many natural systems have been converted to residential and commercial developments-mainly through traditional ditching and draining. As a result, the storage capacity, water purification, and habitat value of the watershed's natural wetland systems have declined dramatically. These wetland losses have also accelerated the delivery of large pulses of fresh water to the region's estuaries and decreased the amount of low-salinity habitat needed for the juvenile stages of many fish and shellfish. Invasive exotic species are also a problem.

Image of Development between 1950 and 1990 replaced more than 40 percent of the salt marshes and mangroves in Sarasota Bay. Loss of this natural habitat and high levels of nitrogen from fertilizers and septic systems have led to degraded water quality in the bay.
Development between 1950 and 1990 replaced more than 40 percent of the salt marshes and mangroves in Sarasota Bay. Loss of this natural habitat and high levels of nitrogen from fertilizers and septic systems have led to degraded water quality in the bay.

Between 1950 and 1990, saltwater wetlands (both salt marshes and mangroves) in Sarasota Bay have decreased in size by about 40 percent. The remaining tidal wetlands are smaller, more fragmented. and infested with invasive exotic species, particularly Brazilian pepper and Australian pine.

By the early 1990s, nutrient concentrations in Sarasota Bay had increased to five times natural conditions because of fertilizers and septic tanks. About 30 percent of seagrass coverage has been lost because of dredging and filling and subsequent reduced water quality; fisheries have declined substantially.

Water table levels in the upper Floridan aquifer have been declining in the watershed's coastal areas since the 1930s. However, these declines greatly accelerated beginning in the early 1960s and are now observed throughout the entire ground water basin. The declines, which are exacerbated by increased ground water withdrawals for agriculture, human consumption, and landscaping irrigation, have had significant regional and local impacts, including increased saltwater intrusion, degraded water quality, lowered lake levels, and reduced spring and stream flows.

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

Interesting Facts:

  • The watershed supports some of Florida's most beautiful and productive estuaries.
  • Sarasota Bay is the largest estuary in the watershed.
  • Seagrass coverage has increased in upper Sarasota Bay since the 1980s because of wastewater treatment plant upgrades by Manatee County and the city of Sarasota.
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