ecosystem blog

What’s in a Watershed? A Look Into the Waterways We Protect

Miami Waterkeeper operates in the two most populous counties in the State of Florida, Miami Dade and Broward Counties. These counties have more than 4.5 million residents combined. Our region has over 470 miles of waterways, including South Florida’s coastline, canals, rivers, streams, and other bodies of water. Where we work is important to our local culture, economy, and history, and we wanted to show you just what our watershed looks like and how it came to be.

The coastline across both Miami-Dade and Broward Counties spans 44.8 miles. As one would imagine, the Atlantic Ocean plays a meaningful cultural, ecological, and economic role in this part of the State. People spend time fishing, walking, paddling, biking, dining, and so much more by the water and amidst the beaches our region boasts. In fact, Biscayne Bay brings billions of dollars to our local economy and is home to over a dozen threatened and endangered species.

Other waterways include approximately 434 miles of man-made canal systems weaving through Miami-Dade and Broward Counties creating a human-altered watershed. Many of the canals in Broward County are connected to the Intracoastal Waterway and are regularly flushed by tides making them slightly salty. In Miami-Dade County, some canals have an excess of nutrients due to local agricultural practices and drainage design. Stormwater outfalls in both counties empty out into the canal system as well as Biscayne Bay, posing an added stormwater runoff pollution issue. 

South Florida’s rivers shape the landscape in meaningful ways and hold cultural ties to Florida’s history. The Miami River, which runs right through the City of Miami, was originally fed by multiple rapids and springs coming from the Everglades over a series of bluffs. Due to dredging, the river is now fed by the Miami Canal, a man-made structure finished in the early 20th century that moves freshwater near Lake Okeechobee down through the Everglades to South Florida.

The name Miami actually comes from the Mayaimi Tribe that lived near the large, freshwater Lake Okeechobee. The Oleta River, which flows through Miami-Dade’s Greynolds Park, is the only waterway in the county not yet dredged or significantly altered. The Tequesta Tribe, a small Native American tribe originally settled on what is now current-day Miami, once used Oleta River to reach fishing spots in the productive Biscayne Bay. The outline of the circle in our logo is the outline of the Miami Circle, which is a Tequesta archaeological site at the mouth of the Miami River and Biscayne Bay. The site was discovered in 1998 and is thought to be between 1700-2000 years old. Shell tools, dolphin skulls, turtle shells, and shark teeth were found inside the circle, indicating that this circle is one of the first known interactions of humans and the water in the Miami area.

South Florida holds an immense amount of history and identity in its waterways. To preserve this natural history, our region also lays claim to two national parks: Everglades and Biscayne National Park. Everglades National Park is known for its wildlife, including the Florida alligator and several protected species. Excess water from Lake Okeechobee feeds into the Everglades system and also gradually recharges the Biscayne Aquifer, our drinking water supply below the ground. Biscayne National Park preserves Biscayne Bay and its neighboring coral reefs. The bay provides protection for a number of species with its mangrove forests and seagrass meadows. Alongside marine species like bonefish, tarpon, manatees, and turtles, migratory birds like herons and roseate spoonbills live in and around the bay.

Our watershed in South Florida is complex and has undergone dramatic changes throughout the past few centuries. From the alteration of natural freshwater flow into Biscayne Bay to the increase in coastal development and population, our waters currently face multiple challenges in trying to maintain a balanced ecosystem. However, these waterways are at a tipping point due to pollution from nutrient runoff and other contamination coming from canals and other land-based sources through the hundreds of miles of waterways webbed across South Florida.

The map above features where Miami Waterkeeper tests water quality for bacteria levels and also shows locations where we have received pollution reports from our 1,000 Eyes on the Water program and community pollution reports. Our local communities are key to helping us keep an eye out for pollution issues they may see to further our mission of protecting the water you love.


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