The National Estuary Program (NEP) was established by Section 320 of the Water Quality Act of 1987. Section 320 authorizes the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to convene Management Conferences to develop Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plans (CCMPs) for estuaries of national significance that are threatened by pollution, development, or overuse. Section 320 also outlines the estuary designation process and the purposes of the Management Conference.
The justification for convening the Charlotte Harbor Management Conference was established by the Florida Governor's Nomination submitted to EPA on March 7, 1995, by the State of Florida with the cooperation of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, Mote Marine Laboratory, and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
On July 6, 1995, EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner named Charlotte Harbor to the National Estuary Program. A cooperative agreement between the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council and EPA was signed in October 1995, allowing start-up activities for the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program to begin. Start-up activities have been completed and implementation of the first year annual work plan is underway.
The entire watershed of the greater Charlotte Harbor watershed has a total area of approximately 4,468 square miles. The estuary itself is the second largest open water estuary in the state. It is 30 miles long and seven miles wide with a total area of 270 square miles. Three rivers feed freshwater into the estuary. The Myakka, Peace, and Caloosahatchee rivers. Geographic subdivisions include the following areas: Myakka River, Peace River, Caloosahatchee River, coastal watersheds, Lemon Bay, San Carlos Bay, Estero Bay, Gasparilla Sound, Pine Island Sound, and Matlacha Pass.
This estuary is bordered by two counties and several local governments and the watershed contains at least portions of six additional counties and numerous local governments. The watershed is subdivided by a multitude of federal, state, and regional agencies with regulatory authorities. A series of resource management efforts have been conducted in the region over the past 25 years. In addition to producing measurable improvements in the estuary and its rivers, the efforts have yielded a solid base of local technical expertise and an involved and concerned citizenry. However, the greater Charlotte Harbor watershed cannot sustain a continuing trend of development and overuse without effective coordination, integration, and expansion of these management efforts.
The NEP will be building upon and enhancing these efforts to take immediate actions where problems are known, and to fill gaps in addressing emerging problems. Charlotte Harbor committed to developing a CCMP in three years based on the completion of previous problem identification and characterization work and successful consensus-building activities within the Charlotte Harbor region.
The Importance of Charlotte Harbor and its Tributaries
The greater Charlotte Harbor watershed is both directly and indirectly a vitally important economic asset to the Florida suncoast. Th many uses and attributes of the Harbor/watershed system, including phosphate mining, agriculture, commercial fishing, recreational fishing, benefits to sanitary and electrical service industries, maritime commerce, waterfront property values, and tourism, and recreation are significant components of the Florida economy.
The natural habitats of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program study area span the full range from the xeric oak scrubs to subtidal soft bottoms. There are more than 2,100 plant species ranging from diatoms to live oaks in the study area. The mangrove forests of Charlotte Harbor provide habitat for more than 2,300 species of animals. Upstream, the hydric pine flatwoods are habitat for from 361 to more than 660 species of vascular plants, the highest vascular plant species diversity of any habitat in south Florida. Hardwood hammock, including tropical, is second (306 species) and dry pine flatwood third (303 species) in vascular plant species diversity. The habitats of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program study area provide habitat for 39 mammal, 331 bird, 67 reptile, 27 amphibian, and 452 fish (66 freshwater and 386 marine and estuarine) species.
The natural habitats of the Charlotte Harbor NEP study area provide critical or essential habitat for at least 42 federally-listed and state-listed species including Florida black bear, manatee, bald eagle, wood stork, Florida scrub jay and American crocodile. Habitat destruction is a major factor which contributes to the status of threatened and endangered mammal species. The process of preserving species diversity through large scale habitat protection favors the listed species of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program study area.
The Charlotte Harbor estuary and contiguous coastal waters serve as a home, feeding ground and/or nursery area for more than 270 species of resident, migrant, and commercial fishes of the Gulf of Mexico. The most critical use of Charlotte Harbor, for numerous species, is a protected nursery area for both larval and juvenile stages of fish. The Harbor is internationally famous for sea shelling, tarpon tournaments, and snook fishing. Many varieties of wildlife and plants are found in this area as well. Manatees, sea turtles, wood storks, and dolphins are watershed inhabitants. Mangrove trees line the shore and provide important habitat for fish, birds, and other wildlife.
Rapid urban development has radically changed the character and ecology of river mouth and coastal waters. Mangroves have been removed or cut back, red tide events cause public health warnings, seagrass areas have declined or have been damaged, and groundwater pumping has reached its maximum limit. Although the main body of Charlotte Harbor and its adjacent estuarine systems are in comparatively good condition compared to severely damaged areas, the watershed reflects the pressure of human activities. If the watershed's population continues to grow at predicted growth rates, these pressures must be addressed to prevent further threats to natural systems and to protect current uses of resources.
Management challenges to the local communities include managing mangrove areas, protecting seagrass areas from boat damage and water pollution, securing new water supply sources for growing populations and businesses, managing waste generated by septic tanks and sewer outfalls, protecting wetland areas for water retention, groundwater recharge, and wildlife habitat, and improving the efficiency of freshwater usage.
The program goals were developed to provide guidance to the Management Conference throughout the life of the program. It is understood that several of the goals require a long term commitment in order to be achieved. The goals were developed through the Management Conference, particularly by the Citizens' Advisory Committee and the Technical Advisory Committee.
Goals of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program
- Improve the environmental integrity of the Charlotte Harbor study area.
- Preserve, restore and enhance seagrass beds, coastal wetlands, barrier beaches, and functionally related uplands.
- Reduce point and nonpoint sources of pollution to attain desired uses of the estuary.
- Provide the proper freshwater inflow to the estuary to ensure a balanced and productive ecosystem.
- Develop and implement a strategy for public participation and education.
Develop and implement a formal Charlotte Harbor management plan with a specified structure and process for achieving goals for the estuary.
Urban development in the harbor's watershed will continue to increase over the next 20 years, putting more pressure on the area's resources. Already, difficult management issues face local governments such as securing a reliable water supply, treating residential wastewater, and preserving local habitat. These issues will become more difficult to manage as the population continues to grow. Therefore, the Charlotte Harbor NEP has identified three priority problems that need to be addressed for long term management of the harbor's resources and quality of life. These priority problems will be refined as additional information become available.
The issues or problems described below can also be viewed as symptoms or consequences of more basic, causal processes. Land uses and land use management, for example, affect hydroperiods (the time it takes rainwater to travel to a water body like a river), nutrient concentrations (and thereby, loading rates), and habitat availability. Given the rate and scale of land use decisions in the study area, a continuing program effort will be needed in the general subject area of land use management. Also, the program must address the problem of incomplete information on particular topics. Certain topics in cerain geographic areas may be important but lack definitive data.
Charlotte Harbor NEP Priority Problems
Hydrologic Alterations - Adverse changes to amounts, locations, and timing of freshwater flows, the hydrologic function of floodplain systems, and natural river flows.
Water Quality Degradation - Including, but not limited to, pollution from agricultural and urban runoff, point source discharges, septic tank system loadings, atmospheric deposition, and groundwater.
Fish and Wildlife Habitat Loss - Degradation and elimination of headwater streams and other habitats caused by development, conversion of natural shorelines, cumulative impacts of docks and boats, invasion of exotic species, and cumulative and future impacts.