The Amy H Remley Foundation  

The Price We Pay

The Price we pay to live in Florida is Florida itself.

For this page we have drawn upon the wisdom and experience of those who wrote about Natural Systems in the Resources Atlas of Florida, Chapter 5, published in 1988 by the Institute of Science and Public Affairs of Florida State University. To see the original document complete with maps and illustrations click Chapter 5.

Florida is one of the most biologically rich areas of North America due to geographic position between the temperate zone and the tropics, a warm and humid climate, and long coast line. Natural ecosystem types include a variety of uplands, wetlands, rivers, lakes, estuaries, and marine systems. Many of the species of plants and animals found in Florida occur nowhere else on earth.

As of 1988, human population growth in Florida had been explosive, especially since the 1950s, and Florida as a popular tourist destination received over 40 million visitors annually. In accommodating the large numbers of people moving to or visiting Florida, most of the natural Florida landscape had been converted to agriculture, silviculture, mining, urban, or other human uses. In the process, forest lands had been reduced by 22 percent in the previous 60 years, and 51 percent of the state's herbaceous wetlands were converted to other uses during the same period. Numerous species of plants and animals had been driven to extinction or had been extirpated from the state, and many more species were in imminent danger of extinction or having declining populations. Originally rare plant communities such as scrub, pine rock lands, and coastal strand had all but disappeared; and entire ecosystems, such as the Everglades, Florida Bay, and Upper St. Johns River, had been severely damaged by extensive water management systems. Most of Florida's lakes, rivers, and estuaries were experiencing water quality degradation as a consequence of polluted storm water runoff from agricultural and urban areas or alterations of freshwater inflows.

Estuarine and Marine Habitats

Humans have contributed to the loss and degradation of estuarine and marine habitat ever since coastal development began in Florida.

Dredging and filling has involved the practice of digging or filling areas classified as wetland or submerged lands. The price of providing waterfront to human habitation construction and maintenance of navigation channels has been the sacrifice of much mangrove, salt marsh, seagrasses, and tidal river habitats. Thankfully, legislation has reduced the rate of price increases.

In three case studies Durako et al. (1988) found that dredge and fill accounted for salt marsh losses of 36 percent, 20 percent, and 19 percent, respectively, in the Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Daytona Beach regions since the 1940s. Boca Ciega Bay near Tampa is an example of extreme loss (over 90 percent) of estuarine habitat. Shallow seagrass beds were dredged into massive fill areas for residential and commercial development (Haddad 1989). Since the 1970s, loss of estuarine and marine habitat due to dredge and fill has been significantly reduced through regulation.

Mosquito control to improve man's quality of life has also degraded salt marshes and mangrove swamps in Florida. Flooding large areas with salt water reduced populations of the salt marsh mosquito (Aedes taeniorhynchus) which lays its eggs on tidally moist sediments, and small tidal pools and puddles. Drainage patterns which created the marsh in the first place were disrupted by extensive ditching and spoil dikes that impeded sheet flow. This practice is now forbidden and reconnection of the salt marshes with the estuary is happening.

Water quality degradation has caused loss of seagrass habitat and is potentially damaging to the health of Florida's coral reefs. Introducing increased quantities of nutrients and silts by changing upland and riverine drainage and land-use patterns have reduced water clarity essential to photosynthesis for Seagrass health and distribution. Discharges of treated sewage and industrial effluents have compounded the problem. Water quality degradation remains the most significant threat to seagrasses statewide. Many areas that historically lost seagrasses can recover if water quality is improved as indicated by the following example. Albeit, science shows that degraded conditions can never be restored their former levels (Duarte, Carlos M. January 2009).

For example, it has been estimated that Tampa Bay has lost 81 percent of its seagrass beds since the 1940s, Charlotte Harbor has lost 29 percent of its seagrass beds, and Indian River Lagoon has lost 30 percent due to degraded water quality (Lewis et al. 1985, Haddad and Harris 1985). However, a costly and successful effort to ameliorate water quality problems in Tampa Bay has resulted in an increase in water clarity and a concurrent 10 percent increase in seagrass (Lewis et al. 1991).

Thoughtless propeller scarring by power boaters coursing Florida's coastal waters, rivers and lakes uproots and kills seagrasses. In shallow waters that experience heavy boat traffic, seagrass beds can be badly damaged, seagrass productivity can be lowered, and the value of these waters as habitats for estuarine and marine life can be severely damaged.

Fresh waters flowing to the sea deliver the needed nutrients and environmental conditions for sustaining habitat, and the life cycles of many of the marine species of recreational and economic importance. Estuarine ecosystems have evolved into one of the most productive ecosystems in the world in response to naturally fluctuating, seasonal drainage patterns of fresh water. Reduced freshwater flows also allow higher salinities to extend further upstream in tidal rivers, often killing plants and animals adapted to tidal freshwater environments.

In some cases, flow reductions also can accelerate eutrophication by increasing retention times of nutrients in estuarine systems. They can create hypoxic (low-oxygen) zones harmful to larval and juvenile fishes. Sub-lethal harm to fisheries may result when changed inflows dislocate physiologically favorable salinity zones in rivers or estuaries from the preferred marsh, seagrass, oyster reef, or other structural habitats preferred by particular life stages of individual species.

The flow of too much freshwater into an estuary can be catastrophic. In many areas of Florida, the practice of flood control has resulted in huge volumes of water being released into the estuarine environment over short periods of time. The flood waters carry heavy loads of silt that have smothered some of the offshore hard bottom and reef communities and sometimes cause massive fish kills and loss of seagrass bed and other bottom habitats, including devastating commercially cultured clams.

Too little freshwater can also harm estuaries.

Perhaps Florida Bay at the southern tip of Florida represents the extreme results of reductions in water delivery. Since the late 1800s, the Everglades ecosystem, stretching from the Kissimmee River to Florida Bay, has been ditched and drained for farming and flood control. Now, about 80 percent of the water that formerly moved slowly through the Everglades and into southern estuaries, such as Florida Bay, today is discharged to east and west coast estuaries. As a result, conditions in the Everglades have changed in response to changes in water delivery and water quality, and reductions in freshwater inflows are believed to be a major reason for the ongoing problems with the biological systems of Florida Bay. It has been estimated that many thousands of acres of seagrass beds have been dying due to poorly understood changes in the Florida Bay ecosystem. In addition, persistent and harmful algal blooms, as well as mangrove and sponge die-offs, have been occurring in the bay. These changes appear to be linked to the overall problems in the Everglades.

Loss of Biological Diversity

Since settlement, 12 vertebrates and 14 plants have either become extinct or have been extirpated from Florida. These species were lost as the result of wanton slaughter, over collection, or conversion of Florida's natural ecosystems to human uses.

Another measure of the status of biological diversity in Florida is the number of species listed as endangered, threatened, and species of special concern. Species listed as endangered have population sizes so low that they are in imminent danger of extinction. Species listed as threatened have declining populations and are in jeopardy of being listed as endangered if population trends are not reversed in the near future. The species of special concern category serves as an early warning system by recognizing species that are declining.

In part due to the rich variety of life in Florida and in part due to extent of building in the state, Florida is second only to California in the number of species listed by the federal government as endangered and threatened. Florida lists 110 vertebrates, 7 invertebrates, and 413 plants as endangered, threatened, and species of special concern (Logan 1997). These endangered and imperiled species include 13 percent of freshwater fishes, 9 percent of the amphibians, 19 percent of the reptiles, 12 percent of the birds, 33 percent of the mammals, and 12 percent of the vascular plants in the state. Overall, a relatively high percentage of the state's plants and animals are in sufficient jeopardy of extinction or extirpation that they are legally recognized as in need of active conservation.

The populations of Florida's most endangered species are perilously low. The Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) numbers 30 to 50 adults. The key deer (Odocoileus virginiana clavium) population is estimated to include only 250 individuals. The American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) population includes no more than 500 juveniles and adults, of which only 30 are breeding females.

Although a few Florida species are already extinct or extirpated, and although many have already been listed as endangered or potentially endangered, many more are known or suspected to have declining populations. In a survey of experts in vertebrate biology in Florida, Millsap et al. (1990) found that 31 fishes, 12 amphibians, 59 reptiles, 151 birds, and 43 mammals have declining populations. Overall, this survey showed that 44 percent of all Florida vertebrates are known to have, or are suspected of having, declining populations. Loss of habitat to development is usually cited as the reason for the observed declines in the populations of most of these vertebrates.

Habitat Fragmentation

One consequence of the conversion of the natural Florida landscape to agricultural, silvicultural, mining, and urban uses has the been the fragmentation of remaining habitats. As development spreads, remaining habitat patches become smaller in size and increasingly isolated from one another (Wilcove et al. 1986).

The inevitable consequence of habitat fragmentation is the loss of biological diversity from a region. Remaining patches of habitat grow too small to support individual plants or animals of a given species, and those species are eliminated from the patch. When many habitat patches in a region become too small to support individuals, entire populations may disappear from a region even though remaining patches appear to contain suitable habitat in all other respects.

Small patches of habitat, particularly forests, also experience edge effects. Edge refers to a zone extending from the forest edge some distance into the interior where influences from surrounding habitats predominate. Edge habitats typically receive more sunlight and are more subject to winds. As a result, microclimate conditions in forest edges are hotter and drier than they are in the interior of the forest. Edge habitats are dominated by common, weedy, early successional stage species of plants, whereas forest interiors are dominated by shade tolerant climax species. As a general rule, forest interiors also support more rare species. The animals that inhabit edge habitats are subject to increased predation and nest parasitism.
Moreover, small patches of forest habitat are comprised of entirely edge species and have no species typically found in forest interiors.

Conversion of the landscape to human uses also causes the loss of natural connections among remaining patches of habitat. Linkages between habitat patches benefit many species by allowing for dispersal of juveniles away from their places of birth, for movement of animals within their home ranges, and for long distance range shifts (Noss and Cooperrider 1994). Landscape linkages, such as riparian forests, may also provide habitat directly for many species. Loss of connections among habitat patches can be particularly severe in the case of wide-ranging species. The Florida black bear and Florida panther have become increasingly susceptible to collisions with automobiles as they cross busy highways trying to reach other patches of suitable habitat.

Publicly owned lands are often managed specifically for the maintenance of biodiversity and less subject to building. Relative increases in public ownership of land areas help to improve biodiversity and connectivity between parcels.

Priority Conservation Lands

In 1994, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission published a technical report (Cox et al. 1994) which identified a set of lands referred to as Strategic Habitat Conservation Areas (SHCA). SHCAs are 4.82 million acres of privately owned lands that should be protected from development in order to ensure the long-term persistence of most elements of Florida's biological diversity. SHCAs are built around and intended to complement biodiversity conservation efforts on the existing system of public lands.

The lands identified as SHCAs include (1) the minimum area of habitat needed to maintain viable populations of 30 vertebrates inadequately protected by the current system of public lands, (2) known high quality examples of four rare community types including pine rocklands, tropical hardwood hammocks, sandhills, and scrubs, (3) wetlands important to the continued nesting success of wading birds, (4) lands needed to protect significant bat caves, and (5) lands important to the conservation of 105 globally rare species of plants. The SHCA maps were developed as a guide to decision makers involved in public land acquisition, land use planning, development regulation, and private landowner conservation initiatives.

As a part of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission project to map Strategic Habitat Conservation Areas, Cox et al. (1994) also mapped lands they referred to as Biodiversity Hot Spots. This map depicts patterns of species richness for 54 focal species of vertebrates selected as indicators of biological diversity in Florida.

Among the vertebrates listed by the state of Florida as endangered, threatened, or species of special concern, 33 are wetland-dependent. That is, these species inhabit only wetlands, or they require wetlands during some time in their lives to survive (e.g., breeding, feeding, roosting).

Kautz et al. (1994) mapped and ranked Florida wetlands based on the number of wetland-dependent listed species likely to use each wetlands. The most extensive areas of upland use are the pine flatwoods ecosystems of north Florida and the Florida panhandle. In many cases, these are the uplands that provide habitat for the Florida black bear. About a quarter of the state's ecosystems occupy lands protected by public ownership.

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