Florida Passes the Surface Water Improvement and Management Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Florida state legislature passed landmark legislation to clean up and restore the state’s polluted or threatened lakes, rivers, streams, estuaries, and bays.

Summary of Event

In 1987, the Florida legislature passed, and Governor Robert Martinez signed, a statute called the Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) Act. The legislation forced Floridians to recognize water—high-quality, clean water—as a valuable resource and not as something to be wasted. Surface water was seen as critical to the economy of the state and to the way of life of residents and visitors. Passage of the SWIM Act ended nearly 170 years of efforts in Florida to dry up and reclaim what had been considered worthless swamp through ditching, diking, paving, and channelizing. Surface Water Improvement and Management Act (Florida, 1987) Pollution;legislation Water;pollution Florida;water pollution [kw]Florida Passes the Surface Water Improvement and Management Act (June 29, 1987) [kw]Water Improvement and Management Act, Florida Passes the Surface (June 29, 1987) [kw]Act, Florida Passes the Surface Water Improvement and Management (June 29, 1987) Surface Water Improvement and Management Act (Florida, 1987) Pollution;legislation Water;pollution Florida;water pollution [g]North America;June 29, 1987: Florida Passes the Surface Water Improvement and Management Act[06510] [g]United States;June 29, 1987: Florida Passes the Surface Water Improvement and Management Act[06510] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 29, 1987: Florida Passes the Surface Water Improvement and Management Act[06510] [c]Environmental issues;June 29, 1987: Florida Passes the Surface Water Improvement and Management Act[06510] Askew, Reubin Martinez, Robert

In 1821, after the signing of the treaty that gave the United States legal possession of the Florida peninsula, Americans began to settle the land in growing numbers. In general, they were farmers awed by the lush vegetation they saw on all sides. Much of the soil in northern and central Florida, and especially southern Florida, was too marshy to permit the kind of cultivation techniques that the transplanted farmers knew. Most vexing to them was the vast grassy acreage that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean and from Lake Okeechobee southward—the area called the Everglades. Everglades;dredging Surely if the water that covered most of the Everglades could be drained, the farmers thought, the broad swales of useless sawgrass could be replaced with plantations of tropical fruits and wintertime vegetables for the northern markets.

A number of short canals had been dredged in the state for navigation, and dredging to drain the Everglades began in earnest in 1906. A dredge boat built for the purpose and christened the Everglades began to carve out what was called the North New River Canal. A second dredge boat, the Okeechobee, was put into operation the following year. This signaled the beginning of a headlong rush to dig canals and reclaim the land. Soon the southern and southeastern parts of the Florida peninsula were crisscrossed with a network of canals. Some of the canals were built to expand agricultural land, and some were built to dry up land to be sold for home sites, especially in and around Miami. As a result, natural drainage into the Everglades was changed drastically.

Lake Okeechobee, the largest lake entirely within one state, was surrounded with a high earthen dike. The water that had drained naturally from the surrounding land north of the lake (including the Kissimmee River) was rerouted westward to the Gulf of Mexico through the Caloosahatchie River or southward through a series of canals into water conservation areas. The drained areas revealed broad swaths of deep, rich muck soils. These were the soils about which real estate boosters had bragged. Florida was quickly plunged into a frenzy of post-World War I land buying and selling, some of which was of a highly speculative nature.

In September, 1926, the land boom collapsed when a major hurricane dumped torrents of rain onto the land. The South Florida canals had so drastically altered the natural drainage that the water could not be contained. Lake Okeechobee topped its dike, the canals overflowed, and floodwaters washed away roads, homes, and farms. Approximately 375 people were killed in the storm, and more than five thousand dwellings were destroyed. The storm was the third to devastate the area within a few years. The other disasters, one in 1922 and a second in 1924, resulted from greater-than-normal rainfalls. Lake Okeechobee poured over its dike in both storms, and the water spread out in all directions.

Water management officials tried to prevent damage in any future storms by keeping the lake at a low level. Heavy rains during the summer of 1928 and a major hurricane in September of that year, however, produced a disaster of incredible proportions. This time, between 1,800 and 2,000 people drowned. Over the course of the next several decades, Florida officials addressed the dual problems of draining and flooding through the construction of a series of new canals, the establishment of additional water-retention areas, and the manipulation of water flow from the land to the sea.

The water situation in the sparsely populated area north of Lake Okeechobee was different. The land there is at a higher elevation than land to the south—sandy hills reaching two hundred feet above sea level are common. South of Lake Okeechobee, an elevation of three feet above sea level is high land. North of the lake, great springs with flows of sixty-five million gallons per day or more drain east and west through a series of old, well-established rivers. Thus, in this area, hurricanes and unusually high precipitation from summer storms did not create any major flooding.

As the population of the state grew, the problems of water supply and water quality grew as well. Population increases had been mainly in the south, and users soon outstripped the available supplies of potable (drinking-quality) water. The growth of cities such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, St. Petersburg, and Tampa and their surrounding suburbs increased the areas of paved roadways, parking fields, and building roofs. The volume of surface runoff pouring into streams, rivers, and ponds flushed in loads of contaminants. The water quality was degraded by domestic sewage from improperly operated or overloaded wastewater treatment plants and by fertilizers, pesticides, automobile petrochemicals, and heavy metals. In the northern and north-central parts of the state, rivers such as the Oklawaha, Suwanee, Withlacoochee, and St. Johns became polluted with similar contaminants, with the heaviest input resulting from agricultural runoff.

It was clear that Florida needed a major water plan. Governor Reubin Askew called for legislation to address the issue, and both houses of the Florida state legislature responded, passing the Florida Water Resources Act in 1972. Florida Water Resources Act (1972) A major part of this act was the creation of five water management districts covering the entire state. The districts were established according to hydrologic boundaries rather than political boundaries, and this led to some curious groupings. The Southwest Florida Water Management District, for example, includes rural Levy County, with a density of 18 persons per square mile, and heavily urbanized Pinellas County (and the City of St. Petersburg), with a density of 2,601 persons per square mile.

Each of the five districts is locally managed and supported by a professional staff of hydrologists, biologists, and engineers. Recognizing that water is one of the main reasons people are attracted to Florida to live and that water is critical to the economy of the state and the way of life of its residents and visitors, the district teams draw up management plans to meet the needs of their areas. The principal task of the districts, at first, was to control flooding. It soon became obvious, however, that water supply and quality were equally important, and a new legislative approach was needed. Thus, on June 29, 1987, Governor Robert Martinez signed the SWIM Act into law.


The passage of the SWIM Act carried a strong message from the Florida legislature. The bill first took notice of the value of high-quality surface water for aesthetic and recreational benefits. Clean surface water provides habitats for wildlife and a variety of native plants, including those that have been determined to be endangered or threatened species. Most important, it is a source of clean drinking water for the burgeoning state population, visitors and residents alike.

One major thrust of the state’s efforts was the reduction of the phosphorous load in surface runoff from the sugarcane fields in South Florida. The fields stretch for miles and extend below the south end of Lake Okeechobee, where the cane grows on the rich muck soils. The runoff flows through several drainage canals into the Everglades, especially Everglades National Park. From there, the runoff empties into Florida Bay. This creates a condition of eutrophication, Eutrophication or overenrichment, in the bay and supports excessive growth of algae, Algae which in turn smothers the stands of desirable marine grasses. The bay waters were once clear, with good populations of fishes and invertebrates, but they became cloudy, with few marine creatures able to survive the stressed water conditions. The combined efforts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Florida, and a number of citizen groups resulted in an agreement with the sugar growers to reduce the nutrient runoff.

One of the earliest projects undertaken as a result of the SWIM Act was a study of the St. Johns River in an area below its mouth near Jacksonville. The water was contaminated with runoff from industrial and agricultural activities in the river watershed. Fish caught in the river bore suspicious skin lesions, which were thought to have been caused by heavy metals in the bottom sediments. Although the river was most heavily polluted in the Jacksonville area, other water-quality problems were found in the river as it flowed through Putnam and Flagler counties.

The Upper Oklawaha River basin SWIM program in the St. Johns River Water Management District is one of the largest such projects in Florida. The basin includes not only the river but also a chain of lakes, the largest of which is Lake Apopka, near Winter Garden. The Oklawaha is considered to be one of the state’s great canopied rivers and is representative of Florida’s ecological past. At one time, the river flowed through bottomland forest dense with tall cypress and buttressed hardwoods. The upper portion of the river, flowing north from Lake Griffin near Leesburg, supported broad sawgrass prairies. The biodiversity of the river, lakes, and wet prairies included large populations of bass and other fishes, egrets, cranes, ospreys, seasonal waterfowl, alligators, and turtles. Deer and black bears fed on the succulent vegetation. Rapid urbanization and intensive agriculture, however, quickly resulted in eutrophication of the waters. The wetlands were drained through a series of canals and dikes, and the Oklawaha was diverted through two canals to drain the prairies so that the rich soils could be farmed for vegetables.

A major goal of the Oklawaha River SWIM program, which began in 1988 and has continued into the twenty-first century, is the restoration of the prairies and marshes. The plan also includes outright purchase of several muck farms and their reversion to wetlands. It is believed that these wetlands will once again provide wildlife habitat and fish nursery areas as well as filters for excess nutrients from the river and lakes. These areas expand flood storage and provide increased recreational opportunities for area residents.

The most visible effects of the SWIM program have been found in large-scale projects such as those undertaken at Lake Jackson, Lake Apopka, and the Oklawaha River. Most of the other benefits are subtle, and their effects will not be apparent for several decades. Florida’s waters could not be cleaned up overnight. Their despoliation was generations in the making, and complete implementation of the SWIM program may take as long. As the population of the state grows, there is a concurrent growth of environmental activism among Floridians. Citizen groups, including the Florida Audubon Society, the Florida Defenders of the Environment, and local Save Our Waters clubs, have taken their environmental concerns to the legislature and, as needed, to the courts. The success of these efforts is demonstrated by the SWIM program and the positive response of the state in the mission to preserve and protect the water resources of Florida. Surface Water Improvement and Management Act (Florida, 1987) Pollution;legislation Water;pollution Florida;water pollution

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blake, Nelson Manfred. Land into Water/Water into Land: A History of Water Management in Florida. Tallahassee: University Presses of Florida, 1980. Presents a scholarly, well-documented overview of Florida’s water problems from the earliest settlement to the date of publication. Shows how land barons, including early politicians, share the blame for the state’s water woes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cleo, June. Florida, Polluted Paradise. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1964. A slim volume that was perhaps thirty years ahead of its time in sounding the alarm about water pollution in Florida. Easy reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohn, Jeffrey P. “Restoring the Everglades.” BioScience 44 (October, 1994): 579-583. Reviews field and laboratory research as well as proposed changes in Florida’s water management that could result in higher-quality water, in greater quantity, in the wetlands of southern Florida.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Derr, Mark. “Redeeming the Everglades.” Audubon 95 (September/October, 1993): 48-61. Presents a clear and detailed discussion of efforts to restore the Everglades, with an overview of the wetlands’ biodiversity and the U.S. government’s subsidy of the sugar industry. Describes the U.S. order to “Big Sugar” to clean up the Everglades.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fernald, Edward A., and Elizabeth D. Purdum, eds. Water Resources Atlas of Florida. Tallahassee: Institute of Science and Public Affairs, Florida State University, 1998. Presents an excellent, detailed review of Florida’s water resources and their physical, chemical, and biological characteristics. Discusses management philosophies and practices. Well illustrated with photographs, maps, and diagrams.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Solecki, William D., et al. “Human-Environment Interactions in South Florida’s Everglades Region: Systems of Ecological Degradation and Restoration.” Urban Ecosystems 3 (October, 1999): 305-343. Scholarly work discusses the social, economic, and political influences on environmental changes in the Everglades over a period of 150 years. Includes information on the impact of the SWIM Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, David. “Restoring the Oklawaha River: The Sunnyhill Farm Project.” Florida Naturalist 64 (Fall, 1991): 6-8. Detailed descriptions of the water management effort and the plants, wildlife, and ecology of this river are provided by the field program manager for the Upper Oklawaha River basin SWIM program. A source of valuable information for readers at all levels.

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Categories: History