On Saturday, Audubon recognized the Sandhill Lakes region of the Florida Panhandle as a “Special Place.” The selection, the first of weekly designations, is intended to cast public attention on the unique assemblage of plants, water, and wildlife that define this region.
The Sandhill Lakes region, covering parts of Bay, Jackson and Washington Counties, is defined by rolling sugar-sand hills and freshwater lakes. The area was the Gulf’s pre-historic shoreline and the hills resemble today’s coastal dunes.
The lakes are connected to both surficial aquifers and the deeper Floridan aquifer and are highly vulnerable to changes in groundwater levels. During droughts the lakes shrink dramatically. The sandy shorelines are defined by rare plants that depend on the rise and fall in water levels. The region’s poor soils are naturally low in nutrients, and as a result the lakes in their natural state are crystal clear.
The Sandhill Lakes region is lightly populated. The major threat comes from a proposed Bay County water supply wellfield that will be permitted to take up to 30 million gallons a day of water from the aquifer. The proposal appears to have political and financial support from the Northwest Florida Water Management District, which is supposed to be the protector, not the exploiter, of groundwater resources. Bay County already has abundant water supplies at the Deer Point Reservoir.
The Sandhill Lakes region is not the only place in which Northwest Florida’s water resources are threatened. To increase support for stewardship of the Panhandle’s unique water resources, Audubon, along with chapters of the Florida Native Plant Society, the Florida Trails Association, and the Florida Paddling Trail Association, will hold a water festival in the early Spring of 2011.
Florida is blessed with so many unique places that are defined by natural history and by the plants and animals that live there. Many of the places that make Florida special are protected as public lands or privately managed preserves. Almost all of Florida’s waters are protected through the public trust doctrine, which says that water is owned by the public. There are still many special places that await protection through Florida Forever or the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Act.
Audubon encourages everyone to go to the Florida’s Special Places Facebook Page and nominate your place. Upload photos and videos and help spread awareness of the conservation needs of the special places that make up our amazing state.