Skip to main content
Aerial view of Suwannee River

How UF scientists are predicting the future of the Suwannee River Basin

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Like so much of Florida, the Suwannee River Estuary is changing, with shifts in land- and water-use reshaping the area’s environment and economy in the next several decades.[/inlinetweet]

But before that future arrives, a team of University of Florida researchers will be helping local communities understand how decisions made now will determine what that future looks like.

Funded by a grant from the National Academy of Sciences, the three-year project will predict how future land- and water-use scenarios might impact the estuary in the long term.

“Land use changes represent some of the biggest changes happening in the Suwannee River Basin, as traditional forested timberland is being transitioned to other agricultural uses and urban areas,” said Mike Allen, the director of the UF/IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station and lead principal investigator for the project. “Changes in land use and increasing human population density will affect water quality — nutrients in the water — and water quantity, which will have economic and ecological impacts.”

Climate change will also factor into the researchers’ predictions, he said.

“Based on the records over the last 100 years, four of the six most severe droughts in the Suwannee River Basin occurred in only the last 15 years. The area is already experiencing the effects of climate change, and we expect that to continue to alter the frequency of rainfall, floods and drought,” Allen said.

The Suwannee River Basin, which includes the Suwannee River and various tributaries, stretches from southern Georgia and into north Florida. The Suwannee River empties into the Gulf of Mexico at the Suwannee River Estuary just north of Cedar Key, Florida.

As one of the largest undammed rivers in the eastern United States, the Suwannee offers a unique opportunity for researchers to understand how this relatively unaltered river may respond to future human activity and climate shifts, Allen said.

Analyzing a complex system like a river basin, its estuary downstream, and the interactions between natural ecosystems and human communities within will require UF/IFAS experts in landscape hydrology, ecology, regional economics and public issues education to work together to create a comprehensive model of the system and how it will respond to possible stressors.

Scientists with the UF Water Institute will study how water and nutrients flow in and out of the Suwannee River Basin under different future scenarios, said Wendy Graham, director of the UF Water Institute.

“We hope to understand the relative contributions of climate, population growth, land use and land management changes on freshwater flows and nutrients to the Suwannee River Estuary, and what are effective management strategies for reducing the negative impacts of these changes,” Graham said.

David Chagaris, a research assistant professor with UF/IFAS NCBS, will investigate how the predicted changes in freshwater flows and nutrients will affect the plants and animals downstream in the Suwannee River Estuary.

The estuary also supports coastal communities through fishing and tourism. Christa Court, director of the UF/IFAS Economic Impact Analysis Program, will model the economic outcomes the region could experience under the different climate, natural resource management and ecological scenarios mentioned above.

Throughout the process, the researchers will engage directly with the communities in the Suwannee River Basin to help them make science-based decisions about the region’s natural resources.

Ricky Telg, professor of agricultural education and communication, and Angie Lindsey, assistant professor of family, youth and community sciences, will conduct focus group research to identify community leaders’ perceptions and knowledge of land use on estuaries.

“We will also oversee the development of a community advisory committee, composed of relevant stakeholder groups, such as nonprofits, local businesses, agriculture producers, regulatory agencies, public officials, watermen and seafood workers,” said Telg, who is the director of the UF/IFAS Center for Public Issues Education.

Telg and Lindsey will coordinate a series of public workshops where stakeholders will learn about the project’s findings and their role in determining the region’s future.

For more information or to get involved, please contact Mike Allen at msal@ufl.edu or (352) 325-6077.