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May 30, 2020

This page last modified:
March 21, 2001

The Florida Bay Puzzle

by Pam Wingrove

University of Florida/Monroe County Cooperative Extension

Florida Bay Education Project

Florida Bay is a life-size jigsaw puzzle that someone hid half of the pieces to. What will be the scene when it is all put together? Scientists are trying to figure that out through a research program that asks five important questions. The first question, "How and at what rates do storms, changing freshwater flows, sea level rise, and local evaporation/precipitation patterns influence circulation and salinity patterns within Florida Bay and outflows from the Bay to Adjacent waters?" is a crucial corner piece to the puzzle.

O.K., as the very talented Julie Andrews once sang, "Let's start at the very beginning, it's a very fine place to start." The questions were asked by the Florida Bay and Adjacent Waters Program Management Committee (PMC). The PMC is a group of scientists from agencies who have management responsibility or scientific interest in Florida Bay. Now let's look more closely at this particular question and investigate why answering it is so important.

The truth is there are over 5 million people in Southeast Florida alone. Each one drinking water, washing cars, watering lawns, flushing toilets and swimming in pools. Each one has a reasonable expectation of living in a home that has water, just not a foot deep in their living rooms. On the other hand, there were millions of residents already here when we all started trickling in. Birds, alligators, fish, crabs, you get the idea. Plants and animals also make up our South Florida community and have basic expectations. They require water to survive, and some need it a foot deep in their "living rooms". How do we meet the water needs of all residents? This is the basic problem facing resource managers and all residents of South Florida.

State and federal regulators responsible for controlling water movement in the region are considering adjusting the system of canals, water holding ponds and other structures used to control water movement so that people have water, the plants and animals have water and that homes are protected from flooding.

Providing water to human residents as well as fish and fowl requires that we understand what the environment looked like before we started "fixing" it. We also need to know how the changes we are considering will affect all parts of the system. We don't really understand all the things that influence water flow but we do know Florida Bay is downstream.

Florida Bay is one big section of the overall South Florida Ecosystem puzzle. It helps support a $59 million shrimp fishery, a $22 million stone crab fishery, provides a setting for recreational fishing, boating, and draws millions of visitors each year who support our economy.

We also know some things about Florida Bay circulation. Water tends to flow to the southeast in the bay and exchanges with the Gulf of Mexico on the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the south through tidal inlets between the Florida Keys. Freshwater sources include surface runoff from the mainland, groundwater upwelling, and seasonal and storm related rainfall.

Historically, salinity (how salty the water is) has changed a lot over time but it is suspected that water management practices have caused increased salinity overall. South Florida Ecosystem restoration will necessarily include changes in water management. Those changes can impact salinity, water quality and circulation downstream in Florida Bay.

The things we know about the bay are somewhat basic, but we do not have a good understanding of how all the different pieces fit together. The complicated interdependence of rainfall, runoff, wind, bottom shape and circulation is not clear. The devil is certainly in the details of this system that depends on a delicate balance of factors to remain functioning. The answers to Question 1 give us more information on the system that will help in making big decisions on how we manage this environment for residents of all kinds.

For more information on this research, contact the Florida Bay Education Project at 305-852-3592. Additional information on a variety of topics is available from the University of Florida/Monroe County Cooperative Extension Service, 5100 College Road, Stock Island or call at 292-4501; fax: 292-4415; email: or visit our web site Our services are free and available to all without regard to race, color, sex, or national origin.

The Florida Bay Education Project is an archived site. For more information go to NOAA's South Florida Ecosystem Education Project at