University of Florida

Florida’s Water Resources

Updated May 2013

Florida's water resources—its wetlands, springs, rivers, lakes, and coasts—are a part of what makes the state unique. Good stewardship requires understanding the importance of water in Florida.

What Is a Watershed?

A watershed is the area of land where water runoff drains into a defined water body. A watershed boundary is the division between one drainage area and another.

A watershed’s size depends on its defined water body. For example, the watershed for a mud puddle in your front lawn would be just a few square feet, but the watershed for the Mississippi River encompasses millions of square miles.

How Watersheds Work

As water flows through a watershed, it provides water for urban, agricultural, and ecological needs.

Watersheds have the following important functions:

  • Collect water from rainfall
  • Store water in groundwater and surface water bodies
  • Release water as runoff
  • Provide habitat for flora and fauna

Florida is divided into 29 major watersheds and 5 major basins that comprise the Water Management Districts.

Watershed Problems

Much of Florida was once swampland, meaning it was naturally covered with water at least part of the year. This was considered "too much water" to use the land, so programs were started in the late 1800s with the following goals:

  • Drain swamps to provide land for houses and farming
  • Cut canals across the state for drainage and navigation
  • Hold back flood water

While drainage and flood control are still issues in some of the state, new problems related to water have emerged. In the past, the concern was having "too much water" in Florida; now many ask if there's enough.

Human activities can impact watersheds by polluting water sources, increasing stormwater runoff, and reducing water supply.

Water Sources


Florida receives an average of 54 inches of rainfall a year, while the United States as a whole only averages 30 inches per year.

Total rainfall in Florida varies across the state and depends on the season. Rainfall amounts can change on an annual basis depending on larger climate patterns.

Variations in rainfall directly impact the state’s surface water and groundwater supplies.

Surface Water

Four of the five largest rivers in Florida are in northern Florida, with headwaters in Alabama or Georgia. The St. John's River flows northward from Indian River County and drains into the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville.

South Florida is dominated by the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades basin which extends from Central Florida to the southern tip of the peninsula.

South Florida has been altered by an extensive system of canals and levees that provide flood control, drainage, and water for agriculture near Lake Okeechobee and for cities on the coast.

The Everglades areas at the southern tip of the peninsula comprise the Everglades National Park, which receives water from this managed system.


The Floridan Aquifer provides the main source of groundwater in Florida. Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Gainesville, Orlando, Daytona Beach, Tampa, and St. Petersburg all draw their municipal water from this aquifer. It also supplies thousands of domestic, industrial, and irrigation wells.

The Floridan Aquifer consists of thick layers of porous limestone that hold water underground  across the state, but in South Florida, the water is too mineralized to be usable.

Rainfall in central and northern Florida replenishes the water in the Floridan Aquifer.

Public Policy & Water in Florida

Florida Water Resources Act

Early water policies in Florida dealt with drainage and flood control. Water law was also based on common law doctrines, which limited forward-looking management.

In 1972, The Florida Water Resources Act established a form of administrative water law, putting the state's water under regulatory control. The authority for water management was given to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). The act also formed Florida's five Water Management Districts.

Unlike previous water law, the act provided a continuity of water policy throughout the state while taking into account the regional variations in water supply.

Together, the FDEP and the Water Management Districts create state water use plans, including policies on water supply, water quality, flood protection, and regional supply plans.

Water Quality Policy

The Air and Water Pollution Control Act gives FDEP authority to protect and improve water quality throughout the state.

This includes the power to do the following:

  • Classify surface and ground water bodies according to their most beneficial uses
  • Establish water quality criteria in each classification for various parameters
  • Develop quality standards for wastewater discharges
  • Implement a permit system for the operation, construction, or expansion of any installation that may be a source of water pollution.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) is responsible for developing and adopting best management practices (BMPs) and assisting agricultural producers in implementing BMPs to improve water quality. FDACS establishes BMPs with input and assistance from UF/IFAS.

Education & Stewardship

Florida faces challenges with watershed resource management. The state’s population is expected to grow to 20 million by 2020, which will require proper watershed management to meet the higher demand for land and water resources.

Watershed management involves three main activities:

  • Rehabilitating abandoned and misused lands
  • Protecting natural and sensitive areas
  • Enhancing water resources

Protecting land and water requires watershed planning and stewardship. Becoming educated about the role of watersheds and water in Florida can help communities make good choices about future growth and watershed management.

Excerpted and adapted from:

S. Shukla, Watersheds: Function and Management (ABE350), UF/IFAS Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (rev. 04/2010).

R. Carriker and T. Borisova, Florida's Water Resources (FE757), UF/IFAS Food and Resource Economics Department (rev. 12/2011).

R. Carriker and T. Borisova, Public Policy and Water in Florida (FE799), UF/IFAS Food and Resource Economics Department (05/2009).

Aquatic grass

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