Watersheds, Wetlands, Buffers and the Law

By Peg Lindsay
Water flows downhill across parking lots, farms, and
yards into reservoirs including ground water aquifers.
Image credit: Northwest Florida WMD

A watershed (also known as a drainage basin) is a land area that funnels the water that enters it into a common waterbody. Networks of retention/detention ponds, canals and culverts throughout our communities help to facilitate this process. Florida has 29 major watersheds. Most everything you put on your lawn can end up polluting your watershed. That is why a buffering system is so important. Wetland buffers protect the watershed by filtering run-off, protecting water quality, preserving fish and wildlife habitat and also preserving the aesthetic values of the natural watercourse and wetlands areas. Late summer algae blooms can be attributed to excess nutrients (often from fertilizers) in the water. (For more on your local watershed, check out this interactive map.)

The littoral zone, the boundary area between the water and the land, is a rich in species and nutrients and bustling with activity. Specifically, it is where:
  • fish and other marine life spawn
  • tiny creatures, developing into adults, are protected in the marshy weeds
  • herons and other birds find food for themselves and their hatchlings
  • sandhill cranes build their nests
  • excess run-off nutrients are captured by aquatic plants, whereby preventing pollution further downstream
Illustration by Laurie Sheldon
Among the native flowering plants commonly found in the littoral zone are duck potato (Sagittaria latifolia), pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata), lizard’s tail (Saururus cernuus), and swamp rosemallow (Hibiscus grandiflorus). Despite their comical common names, the roles these plants play within the context of our watersheds is nothing to laugh at. They work 24/7 to filter, stabilize, and protect some of our state's most precious natural resources.

Because littoral zones directly impact watersheds and wildlife, it is critical protect them and keep them healthy. As such, laws and regulations were developed to prevent their degradation by limiting the activities that can occur there. To provide you with examples of a few of these laws, the following paragraphs will detail some of these restrictions as they relate to my own property.

I live Lake County in an adult community called Highland Lakes, which, like many communities in Florida, has a Property Owner's Association (HLPOA). Many parcels within Highland Lakes border on a common wetland buffer. This buffer is regulated by the Saint Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) through a permit to HLPOA.

The required depth of the standard, non-agricultural buffer for non-isolated wetlands is 25 feet. It is measured from the wetland jurisdictional line (determined in the field by Lake County or another qualified agency) landward.

Non-standard, or variable buffers adjacent to wetlands require permitting in situations where more extensive buffering is necessary to protect water quality.  This is to provide additional protection to areas that are considered more environmentally sensitive than others.  (The criteria for variable buffers including minimum and average depths are provided in 6.01.05 B of Lake County Code, Chapter VI Resource Protection Standards.)

Some passive recreation and conservation activities may be allowed in buffer areas under certain conditions.  Use of my community's nature trail is considered an acceptable form of passive recreation. Additional activities that may take place within the buffer include (but are not limited to):
  1. efforts to retard or eliminate soil erosion problems,
  2. management of exotic vegetation in accordance with a County approved Management Plan,
  3. protection of nesting, feeding or habitat areas for designated species
  4. attempts to support the propagation of other native species.
The HLPOA must secure permission from SJRWMD each time it proposes to modify any portion of the protected wetlands and buffers. Failure to follow federal, state and/or local regulations can result in a substantial fine. Those who remove or destroy any vegetation, for example, can be fined up to $15,000.00 fine by Lake County or the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. To learn about some of the permits required by the Water Management Districts, please visit http://flwaterpermits.com/pportal/

Do you know the wetland-related laws where you live?
Edited and posted by Laurie Sheldon


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