Southeast Volusia Audubon Society, P.O. Box 46, New Smyrna Beach, FL 32170;

February 2012 SJRWMD Update

Wetlands are for the Birds.

The association of Florida with wetlands is so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that the old joke about “buying swampland in Florida” still endures. Yet, the very gist of the joke implies that wetlands are worthless, an impediment to progress.

Swamps, marshes and wetlands cover nearly one third of Florida, but the state has lost nearly half of its wetlands since pioneer times. Much of the loss occurred when wetlands were drained to abate mosquito populations or for use as agricultural areas and urban developments.

Today, we realize the many roles wetlands play in maintaining our quality of life — in ways that aren’t readily apparent. Wetlands temporarily store flood waters, protecting property owners during extreme storm events; clean or filter pollutants from surface waters; recharge groundwater (the source of most of our drinking water); reduce coastal erosion; and provide nursery areas, nesting habitat, wintering habitat and feeding grounds for fish and wildlife.

As a regulatory agency of the state, the St. Johns River Water Management District uses its Environmental Resource Permitting Program as one of its primary tools to protect wetlands — making sure that new construction does not harm wetlands or cause flooding or pollute waterways. Anyone proposing construction of new facilities or wanting to fill in wetlands must have an environmental resource permit. The District also protects wetlands through ownership or an interest in more than 700,000 acres of public land, of which 62 percent is wetlands.

A barred owl has a good view of its home in a conservation area from its high tree perch.

Some District wetlands have become synonymous with thriving bird populations. Imagine, for instance, the vast marshes comprising the headwaters of the St. Johns River. From the air, they must resemble an all-inclusive resort to migratory birds. Hawks and ospreys soar overhead or perch atop cypress trees, ducks glide across the open water, glistening black rails dart through sawgrass stands and patient wading birds strike rigid poses as they wait for unsuspecting fish.

When the District began revitalizing the river’s flow in the 1980s by reclaiming drained marshlands, plugging canals and building reservoirs in the upper basin, the main goal was to provide flood protection in southern Brevard and Indian River counties. However, the District’s efforts to protect and restore wetlands and marshes in the upper basin and throughout its 18-county region yields an ancillary benefit by providing attractive habitats to resident and migratory bird populations. The endangered snail kite, for example, has returned to the upper basin and nested successfully after being absent for nearly a decade.

About one-third of North American bird species rely on wetlands for food, shelter or breeding. Florida, because of its geographic location, diversity of habitats and abundance of wetlands, is a critical region for North American birds. In addition to the resident species that breed in Florida, there is a tremendous influx of birds during winter, many of which remain all winter long and others that simply pass through on their southbound and return migrations. As wetland loss slows in Florida and wetland restoration increases, not only are populations of resident fish and wildlife enhanced, but these local wetland restoration areas help maintain healthy populations of birds on a hemispheric scale.

Another District success story that posed unique challenges along the way is the Lake Apopka Restoration Area, a former agricultural enclave along the north shore of Lake Apopka that is being returned to a more natural wetland system.

Many species of shorebirds and wading birds find food and habitat in this restoration area at Emeralda Marsh.

 Ed Garland