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Water quality monitoring commences in the newly established Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve

Florida’s Aquatic Preserve System

The Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection oversees the Aquatic Preserve system. The goal of the Aquatic Preserves is to protect the best of Florida’s submerged areas so current and future generations can enjoy them. There are more than 40 Aquatic Preserves in Florida, and the newest one is the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, covering waters off of Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco Counties.

Map of the Florida Aquatic Preserve system

How do managers preserve our resources?

woman holds water quality meter over the side of a boat

A biologist deploys a water quality sensor. Source: FDEP.

Decades of land development, population growth, and climate change have made it impossible to achieve a truly “pristine” state in most aquatic systems. However, to preserve systems in the most natural state possible, managers need information about the status and trends of key aspects of the environment. In Florida’s aquatic environments, some of the most important things to track are nutrient levels, light levels, and seagrass populations.

Shallow, nearshore systems like those in the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve (NCAP) are sensitive to changes in the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus (nutrients) in the water. This is because nutrient levels act in large part to determine the amount of microalgae that can grow. This, in turn, influences the amount of light available for seagrasses that form the basis of habitats that support fisheries and recreation.

How do we track environmental trends?

palm trees along a river

The Chassahowitzka River.

Our best tool when it comes to tracking the environment is consistent and standardized monitoring data. Monitoring programs aim to visit sites repeatedly over time and collect samples that define conditions in the target system. In the case of the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve (NCAP), we collect a long list of water quality information at 90 stations on a monthly basis. Our first sampling event occurred last week on March 17th in the Chassahowitzka estuary. In addition, seagrasses will be monitored annually at 100 stations starting this summer. We catalog all of the information in publicly available databases for managers and researchers to access. The UF team will make comparisons between new data and historical information about the waterbodies along the Nature Coast.

These monitoring programs are funded by DEP and a donation from the Pew Charitable Trusts. A team of four people at the University of Florida carry out the work. The team consists of two biologists (Morgan Edwards and Jamie Hammond) as well as two faculty (Dr. Laura Reynolds and myself). Dr. Reynolds’s staff and students are also a big part of the field team. In addition, we are grateful to the entire staff of the UF/IFAS LAKEWATCH Lab, where water quality grab samples are analyzed, and our partners at DEP.

What else is going on with the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve?

In addition to environmental monitoring, the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve team is also working on a draft management plan. Writing a management plan for an Aquatic Preserve is a multi-year process. Researcher Dr. Hannah Brown is leading the effort to draft most of the chapters of the management plan in 2021. She is working with Corina Guevara, a GIS specialist in Florida Sea Grant, to produce a series of draft maps that catalog surrounding land use, resources, and point of interest that are relevant to NCAP. In future years, a series of stakeholder workshops and review panels will refine and finalize the draft management plan.

Stay tuned for more about how you can participate! You can also find out more about related water quality programs with UF/IFAS and Florida Sea Grant if you want to get involved now. Feel free to comment below with questions about this exciting new aquatic protected area.

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