We hear much about “wetlands” here in Florida, but exactly what are they and why are they so important to our water quality and ecosystem?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Wetlands are areas where water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying periods of time during the year, including during the growing season.”  Over 31% of Florida is wetlands. Ninety percent of those wetlands are freshwater (18,500+ square miles), with only 10% being saltwater marshes and mangroves (approximately 2,000 square miles) [coast.noaa.gov/states/fastfacts].  In the decade 1996 – 2016, Florida had a 19% increase in development which resulted in a significant loss of wetlands throughout the state.

Why are wetlands so important?

  • Wetlands filter toxins from freshwater;
  • Wetlands serve as important fish, bird and wildlife habitats;
  • Wetlands protect coastal land from hurricanes;
  • Wetlands hold excess water during heavy rains, thereby preventing flooding, a critical component of managing Florida’s dry and rainy seasons.

The Everglades contains the largest expanse of wetlands, a total of four million acres, and provides natural filtration yielding clean drinking water for one in three Floridians.  Furthermore, the Everglades is home to 78 endangered species. 

The passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972 served to limit what could be dumped into waterways and mandated protections for water resources, including wetlands.  Aware of the increasing loss of wetlands to development, mining and transportation projects, President George H.W. Bush endorsed the goal of “no net loss” of wetlands.  Labeled “mitigation,” this policy required that any wetlands lost must be compensated for with wetlands saved.  A recent example:  a developer bought 300 acres in Hendry County to offset the wetlands he is clearing to sell near Lee County’s airport, leaving the county with fewer wetlands and Hendry adding to its total.  While legal, such mitigation efforts are criticized by environmental groups and are generally considered failed policies.

Until December 2020, permits to develop wetlands were issued by the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the federal Clean Water Act.  In December, U.S.EPA transferred this authority to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, a state agency severely underfunded and continually short of resources.  

Wetlands exist throughout Lee County.  An extremely important area of wetlands lies in the Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource region in southeast Lee, an 81,000 acre expanse that lies atop our supply of drinking water and was originally reserved for low density development.  The wetlands in this area serve to filter out contaminants which could potentially pollute our water supply drawn from groundwater, a natural process called “recharge.”  Today, the county has amended the Comprehensive Plan to increase allowable development density and re-named this area “Environmental Enhancement and Preservation Overlay,” and has permitted thousands of new residences in the once-protected groundwater resource/wildlife habitat.

Wetlands are fast disappearing.

Quick facts

  • Due to development, Lee County has already lost 50% of its historic wetlands.
  • A 2019 County Commission-initiated comprehensive plan change allows for increased density of commercial and industrial land uses to be applied to lands formerly designated as wetlands on the Lee County Future Land Use Map.
  • The County participates in the Federal Community Rating System for flood mitigation where the County receives points for undeveloped open space, i.e. wetlands, as flood mitigation areas. The more points (the more wetlands), the larger the residential FEMA flood insurance discount.  Loss of additional wetlands could result in a smaller FEMA Flood insurance discount.  For more information see county webpage: https://www.leegov.com/dcd/flood.

Further reading

“Paving Paradise” by Craig Pittman

“The Swamp” by Michael Grunwald