Water Supply Paper 2486

You can DOWNLOAD THIS REPORT (776 KB) in Portable Document Format (PDF)
The Adobe PDF Reader program is available for free from Adobe.

McPherson, B.F., Miller, R.L., and Stoker, Y.E., 1996, Physical, Chemical, and Biological Characteristics of the Charlotte Harbor Basin and Estuarine System in Southwestern Florida--A Summary of the 1982-89 U.S. Geological Survey Charlotte Harbor Assessment and Other Studies: Water-Supply Paper 2486, 32 p.


The Charlotte Harbor estuarine system, having a surface area of about 270 square miles, averages about 7 feet in depth and is connected to deep water of the Gulf of Mexico through several passes and inlets between barrier islands. Three major rivers flow into the estuary--the Peace, the Myakka, and the Caloosahatchee. Freshwater and tidal flushing transport nutrients and other constituents from the basin through the estuary into the gulf. Flushing characteristics were evaluated using a two-dimensional hydrodynamic model. The model indicated that the time required to flush injected dye (simulated) from some subareas of the harbor was longer for reduced freshwater inflow than for typical freshwater inflow. After 30 days of simulation of reduced freshwater inflow, 42 percent of the dye injected into the upper harbor remained in the upper harbor, compared to 28 percent for typical freshwater inflow.

The Charlotte Harbor estuary is usually well mixed or partially mixed in the vertical, but vertical salinity stratification does occur, primarily during late summer when freshwater inflows are greatest. A box model was developed that incorporated vertically averaged salinities to account indirectly for three-dimensional transport processes associated with vertical stratification. The box model predicts that under high (7,592 cubic feet per second) and average (2,470 cubic feet per second) freshwater inflows from the Peace and Myakka Rivers, 50 percent of the original water (present at the start of the model run) would be flushed from the northern part of the estuarine system into the Gulf of Mexico in 10 days and 20 days, respectively.

The distribution of plant nutrients in the Charlotte Harbor Estuary is affected by nutrient inputs, freshwater and tidal flushing, mixing, and recycling processes in the estuary. The distributions of total phosphorus and orthophosphate are affected mainly by river input and physical mixing. The distribution of ammonia nitrogen is variable and is related more to recycling within the estuary than to input from the rivers. Ammonia concentrations increase in deeper water, probably in response to vertical salinity stratification and low concentrations of dissolved oxygen that foster regeneration of ammonia from bottom sediments. The distribution of nitrite plus nitrate nitrogen is nonconservative--concentrations are high in the rivers and decrease more rapidly in the estuary than expected due to dilution with sea water, probably because of phytoplankton uptake.

Phytoplankton productivity and biomass are usually greatest during late summer near the mouths of the tidal rivers when freshwater inflow and nutrient loading are greatest. The highly colored freshwater runoff reduces light penetration and phytoplankton productivity in regions of the estuary where salinity is less than about 10 parts per thousand, but the nutrient-rich, colored water is diluted by seawater at midsalinities (10-20 parts per thousand) so that availability of light increases and inorganic nitrogen concentrations are still high enough to stimulate productivity and growth of phytoplankton. In much of the estuary, salinity is greater than 20 parts per thousand, and availability of inorganic nitrogen, not light, limits productivity and growth.

Although the Charlotte Harbor estuarine system is relatively undisturbed, much of its basin has been altered by human activities. Streamflow decreased substantially during 1931-84 in parts of the Peace River, probably because of ground-water withdrawals in the basin. Nutrient concentrations generally increased in the rivers during 1970-85, because of an increase in the flow of wastewater and agricultural runoff. The concentrations of phosphorus are naturally high in the Peace River because of extensive phosphate deposits in the basin. The phosphate deposits also are relatively rich in radionuclides of the uranium-238 series, including radium-226. In the upper basin, these deposits are exposed in the riverbed. Extensive phosphate mining and processing have exposed additional deposits to surface runoff. Periodic spills of phosphate sediments (slimes) have contributed additional phosphorus and radium-226 to the river and estuary. A single spill can contribute a phosphorus load equal to the annual loading in the Peace River at Arcadia.

The projected increase in population in the basin by the year 2020 would generate an additional 60 million gallons per day of domestic wastewater over that generated during 1980, which would increase nitrogen loading in the basin by more than 3 tons per day. Intensified agricultural and industrial developments, particularly expanding citrus production and phosphate mining, could generate additional loads of nutrients and a variety of inorganic and organic contaminants. Increased inputs of nutrients, particularly nitrogen, could encourage growth and increase abundance of phytoplankton and benthic and epiphytic algae. If water were less colored as a result of reduced freshwater inflow, undesirable algal growth could be exacerbated because of increased availability of light. Increased abundance of phytoplankton and other algae could likely change dissolved-oxygen concentrations in the estuary, resulting in greater day-to-night fluctuations and the possible depletion of dissolved oxygen in deep water. At the present time, near-anaerobic conditions occur for days or weeks in the deep water (more than 9 feet) of the northern harbor during late summer. These conditions could become more persistent with time and over wider areas, if phytoplankton and other algae increase in abundance and in their contribution to benthic oxygen demand. An increased abundance of phytoplankton and other algae also would reduce light penetration and adversely affect seagrasses.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]