Coastal Estuarine Habitats
Photograph Credit: Richard Gant

Coastal Estuarine Habitats

The Springs Coast Watershed features one of the largest and most spectacular expanses of salt and brackish marshes found in Florida. Most of the springs and rivers in the watershed flow west into the Gulf of Mexico. As these rivers and springs near the points where they flow into the Gulf, they become influenced by tides. When tides are high, the salt water from the Gulf moves up the rivers and springs and mixes with the fresh water, creating "brackish" water. When the tides recede, the influence of the river is more prominent.

This mixing of fresh water and salt water creates "estuaries." Estuaries are protected shallow areas that serve as "nurseries" for fish, shellfish and other animals. The fresh water that flows into an estuary is essential. If the water is polluted or if there is not enough fresh water, these young and fragile fish and animals such as shrimp, oysters and crabs will not survive there. Because spring discharge is made up of ground water and not direct rainfall, the flow of spring water does not rise or fall drastically each season. This means there is a constant flow of fresh water into most of the Springs Coast Watershed's estuaries. The constant flow of fresh water makes these estuaries very balanced and productive ecosystems.

Salt marshes are one type of plant community you can find in an estuary. Salt marshes form in areas where the waves hitting the shore are small. Salt marshes are drained of water when the tide goes out and then flooded with salt water when the tide comes back in. This flushing action brings in nutrients, making salt marshes some of the richest and most productive habitats on Earth. The most extensive salt marshes in Florida begin in northwest Florida at the mouth of the Ochlockonee River near Apalachicola and end in New Port Richey. In fact, saltwater marshes span nearly the entire coastline of the Springs Coast Watershed. The Springs Coast Watershed's salt marshes are wet, grassy areas mostly made up of needlerush. You can also find patches of saw grass and many herbs such as morning glory and saltmeadow cordgrass, also known as spartina grass.

Next stop: Weeki Wachee River