A trip along the west coast of Florida from the Panhandle to the Everglades is a voyage through some of the state’s finest remaining natural lands. Still predominantly rural and agricultural, springs, swamps and rivers abound, clues to the region’s most precious resource: Water.
But these lands—and the waters they shelter—are now threatened.
In 2019 the Florida Legislature passed SB 7068, which calls for the construction of three toll roads in three corridors linking North Florida with Collier County. Along with expressways, it promises to bring sprawl – convenience stores, strip malls and suburban developments -- to this unspoiled stretch of old Florida. There has been scant regard for harm to the current agriculture and eco-tourism-based economy, costs to strapped local governments to provide infrastructure and services to support new development, or damage to Florida’s vulnerable water supply.
Open expanses of natural lands protect Florida’s waters so vital for human consumption, agriculture and the environment. As rains fall, waters percolate through uplands and wetlands before being further purified and stored in the limestone karst that underlies much of Florida. But when lands are developed with miles of roads and sprawling development, their ability to absorb rainwater is greatly diminished. Waters instead run across expanses of pavement, picking up pollutants along the way. The urban stormwater runoff that doesn’t wash into nearby waterways goes to vast treatment facilities, bypassing nature’s more cost effective and efficient cleansing and storing abilities.
With water quality in crisis in some parts of Florida and water shortages in others, protecting rural land from development should be a top state priority. Yet the three toll road corridors cut through some of Florida’s best remaining lands and most valuable water resources.
Their path starts in the Panhandle, where the expansive pinelands of the Red Hills replenish the Floridan aquifer, source of drinking water for millions of Floridians. To the south, where two corridors converge, lies the heart of Florida’s springs country – hundreds of pristine, crystal blue watering holes that serve as eyes into the aquifer.
Continuing the southward trek, the Green Swamp feeds the Hillsborough, Withlacoochee, Ocklawaha and Peace rivers – the source of much of Central Florida’s water supply. The state’s land planning agency notes the swamp’s designation as an Area of Critical State Concern “recognizes its valuable hydrologic function and the need to specifically regulate encroaching development that imperils these functions.” Yet a toll road corridor runs smack dab through Green Swamp.
Following the Peace River further south, the southernmost M-CORES corridor features ranch lands, citrus groves, and crop farms. Its seasonally wet grasslands and longleaf pine savannas help nourish the greater Everglades ecosystem. The Peace River provides drinking water and recreation, and its flow into Charlotte Harbor helps support commercial and recreational uses there. Fragmentation of these lands with more roads and development would further threaten Collier County, ground zero for the endangered panther.
Economic development is essential for this swath of rural Florida. But it must build on the region’s rich agricultural heritage and natural resources without destroying the waters so critical to Florida’s future.
Victoria Tschinkel, a former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, has served on the board of directors of 1000 Friends of Florida for more than 20 years.