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Historical Background of the St. Lucie River Watershed Quick Topics

The earliest known settlers in the St. Lucie watershed were the Ais and Seminole Indians. The Ais were first documented in 1568 occupying lands adjacent to the St. Lucie River (SLR) but were decimated by 1763 when the British took possession of Florida. After their disappearance, the Seminoles (a mix of Micossukee, Creek, and Choctaw) occupied Florida. The North Fork was used by the Seminole Indians as a transportation route. The Seminoles were believed to use the river in seasonal hunting excursions from the St. Johns marshes to Hutchinson Island where they would hunt bear (Ursus americanus) and West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus). The North Fork was also used in the Seminole Wars of the 1800s. Large military forces are believed to have traveled through this area during the 1838 winter campaign of General Jessup during the Second Seminole War.

Prior to European settlement, the SLR was a freshwater system that drained into the Indian River Lagoon (IRL). The creation of St. Lucie Inlet in 1892 connected the Indian River Lagoon to the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the SLR. This project ultimately converted the freshwater tributary to a riverine estuary (freshwater in the upper reaches and saltwater in the middle and lower sections). This unique salinity gradient changed the natural resources found in the SLR. The river now serves as an important brooding and nursery ground for migratory fish, such as snook (Centropomus spp.), snapper (Lutjanus spp.), and opossum pipefish (Microphis brachyurus lineatus) that require estuarine and freshwater to complete their lifecycle.

Land use along a canal

Photo: Southwest Florida Water Management District

Construction of canals during the early and mid-1900s further changed the dynamics and diversity within the SLR by altering the distribution, timing and flow of water reaching the river. The canals were primarily designed to address flood control and drainage for land reclamation in central and southern Florida. They form a direct connection between the South Fork and Lake Okeechobee, and have expanded the North Fork SLR watershed. Drainage of the watershed allows for conversion of natural land to agricultural and urban development. Another flood control project was being conducted from the 1920s - 40s to straighten portions of the North Fork. In the process of straightening the river, the dredged spoil was piled into berms (mounds) along the banks of the new channel. These spoil piles, which can measure up to 50 feet wide and 25 feet tall, block former riverbends and oxbows as well as isolate a large portion of the North Fork floodplain. Historically, the slow and meandering path of the North Fork allowed suspended solids to settle out of the water and nutrients to be filtered by vegetation, but the direct rivercourse does not, which affects the water quality and sediment loads reaching the estuary.

The SLR is divided into four sections: North Fork, South Fork, Middle Estuary and Lower Estuary. A 16-mile portion of the North Fork was designated as an aquatic preserve in 1972 to protect the aesthetic, biological and scientific value for future generations. Because of its geographic location and tidal connection through St. Lucie Inlet, the aquatic preserve supports high species diversity and serves as an important nursery ground for a variety of fish and wildlife.

Last updated: April 06, 2015

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