John MoranPhoto by: John Moran

How critical are corridors? Preliminary research suggests the connections between natural areas may benefit our water resources.

Authors: Janardin Mainali, Ph.D. and Jason Evans, Ph.D.

The State of Florida is increasingly acknowledging the importance of interconnected natural space. On July 1, 2021, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act officially became state law, after receiving unanimous bipartisan support. The Act established a statewide map of currently undeveloped lands that are the most crucial for maintaining connections between Florida’s existing natural areas.

While Florida has been a national leader in conservation of natural lands for some time, scientists have long argued for increased focus on the way these lands connect to one another.

Another recent boost in public awareness came with the award-winning National Geographic film Path of the Panther. This film brought international attention to the Florida Wildlife Corridor and highlighted hard-won progress in bringing the Florida Panther back from the brink of extinction.

Even with the ongoing challenges from population growth and development, the firm commitment from the many partner entities – including Highlands County’s own Archbold Biological Station – to preserve much of the 18-million acres within the Corridor gives hope for the long-term survival of natural Florida. Still, there’s always more work – and science – to be done, to better protect Florida’s environment for ourselves and future generations.

In November 2022, Archbold announced Dr. Janardan Mainaili, then post-doctoral researcher at Stetson University’s Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience, as the inaugural recipient of the David S. Maehr Florida Wildlife Corridor Applied Science Fellowship. Through this fellowship, Mainali has been studying a crucial question: How might natural lands within the Corridor be helping to maintain the water quality of lakes and other aquatic systems throughout Florida?

While it may seem clear that preservation of natural lands is generally good for water quality, it’s important to remember the Corridor was primarily designed to protect panthers and other large wide-ranging animals – and did not have a primary focus of protecting water quality. Mainali therefore recognized that “it was something of an open question as to whether what’s best for the panther might also be measurably helping Florida’s most valuable water resources.”

Mainali—a physical geographer with a background in studying the way land activities can affect water quality—went to work, searching for water quality data collected in Florida within the past several decades. He used data available through Florida Lake Watch, a volunteer-based citizen lake monitoring program that has been run through University of Florida since 1986. Working closely with scientists at both Archbold and Stetson, Dr. Mainali used a statistical model to test whether any changes in water lake quality measured by Florida Lake Watch might relate to changes in the nearby landscape.

So what did the model show? According to preliminary results, lakes that have more of their watershed within the Corridor may be less affected by severe algal blooms, when compared with lakes having little to no Corridor lands. Conversely, lakes with high amounts of impervious cover—like roads, buildings, parking lots, and other forms of pavement—in their watershed showed higher levels of chlorophyll.

The amount of chlorophyll—a green pigment found in algae—measured in the water can indicate how much algae is present. Important plant nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, feed the algae, causing it to rapidly grow—or bloom. Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are known to exacerbate harmful algal blooms when high levels are present within water bodies, and they can come from a variety of sources, including fertilizers applied by homeowners and or agricultural lands, and by poorly managed septic systems.

Dr. Jason Evans, Executive Director for Stetson’s Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience and the supervisor for Mainali’s project, says that these results may provide useful guidance for homeowners and farmers within the Corridor, and may incentivize best management practices. He notes “no one wants excess nutrients to end up in waterways and it seems clear that everyone benefits from cleaner water – especially our rural communities who live closest to the land. I’m confident that resources made available through the Florida Wildlife Corridor will help implement many projects that are a true ‘win-win-win’ for wildlife, water, and working rural landscapes.”