Restoring the Rookery Bay Estuary Project: Connecting people and science for long-term community benefit
Funded by the National Estuarine Research Reserve System's Science Collaborative.
Applying watershed management techniques in southwest Florida
The Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (RBNERR) managed a grant-funded project called Restoring the Rookery Bay Estuary: Connecting People and Science for Long-term Community Benefit from March 2011 through June 2015. The project was funded by the National Estuarine Research Reserve System’s (NERRS) Science Collaborative which is a cooperative agreement between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of New Hampshire.
The project used watershed management techniques to improve understanding of the Rookery Bay watershed and estuary which is located between Naples and Marco Island in southwest Florida. The focus of the project was on understanding altered freshwater inflows to the estuary and potential ecological effects, and also on water resources decision-making in the region. The intention was to use this new information to guide future research and management activities. The project was also important because this part of Collier County is slated for intense future development, is in an area where potable water is captured for use by a growing population, and because the downstream estuary represents nearly half of RBNERR’s managed areas.
The project had approximately 20 different elements including ten new research projects in the areas of hydrology, ecology and human dimensions. In addition, a successful strategy was the use of a Project Advisory Group comprised of 30 stakeholders from local, state and federal government entities, non-profits, and the business sector. The project also resulted in a series of recommendations that were shared through one-to-one meetings, public presentations, and in one-page handouts.
Management problem and context
The Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (RBNERR) is surrounded by the growing population of Collier County, in southwest Florida. Part of a national network of 28 NERR’s, the RBNERR is a partnership program between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). RBNERR manages 110,000 acres of land and water that is part of the Everglades ecosystem. Its mission is to provide a basis for informed stewardship of estuaries in Southwest Florida through research and education. Of particular interest to the RBNERR is the Rookery Bay Estuary, fed by the Rookery Bay Watershed.
This watershed is upstream of the northwest portion of the RBNERR in an area slated for intense future development, although existing competing land uses already include agriculture, rock mining, golf courses and preserve lands. In addition, this watershed includes a City of Marco Island utilities site where the majority of their potable water is captured from a stormwater canal that is approximately 1 ½ miles upstream of Henderson Creek and the RBNERR headquarters.
The downstream receiving waters, called the Rookery Bay Estuary, is highly affected by altered freshwater inflow due to the upstream land uses and a complex system of weirs, gates, canals, ditches and stormwater ponds.
These water management systems are operated seasonally to shunt water off the land in the rainy summer season to prevent flooding, and to hold back water to recharge aquifers in the dry winter season. Collier County government and the South Florida Water Management District are the primary stormwater managers and they balance the competing need for adequate flood control, with aquifer recharge, and minimizing downstream impacts to coastal waters including the quality, quantity, and timing of freshwater discharges. The Rookery Bay estuary requires a delicate balance of fresh water coming from the land, combined with salt water from the Gulf of Mexico, to sustain the health of numerous fish and shellfish that are food sources and have tremendous commercial and recreational value. Balancing the water needs of people with the needs of natural systems is an ongoing issue for the community.
To proactively address these pressing coastal management issues, the RBNERR received an $815,000 grant from the NOAA Science Collaborative to conduct the Restoring the Rookery Bay Estuary Project: Connecting People and Science for Longterm Community Benefit. There were more than 20 project elements in three categories: Hydrology, Ecology, and Human Dimensions. The project focused on two goals:
1. Better understand altered freshwater inflows to the Rookery Bay estuary and how that has affected the ecologic health of the estuary, and,
2. Better understand local water resource decision-making, at both the personal and institutional levels.
The project was guided by two important principles including the approach required by the Science Collaborative which was a cooperative agreement between NOAA and the University of New Hampshire under NOAA grant NA09NOS4190153. The NERRS Science Collaborative puts Reserve-based science to work for coastal communities by engaging the people who need the science in the research process—from problem definition and project design through implementation of the research and use of its results in coastal decisions. In addition, the project team utilized a watershed management process which included a series of cooperative, iterative steps to:
• Characterize existing conditions,
• Identify and prioritize problems,
• Define management objectives, and
• Develop and implement protection or remediation strategies as necessary
Funding for this project was provided to the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in 2012–2015 by the National Estuarine Research Reserve System’s (NERRS) Science Collaborative which is a cooperative agreement between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of New Hampshire under NOAA grant NA09NOS4190153.