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Sawgrass Lake

In the picture, you are looking out on a man-made canal first excavated in 1951 to provide relief from flood waters to the near-by communities. Pinellas county has been hit by several hurricanes throughout the last hundred years. Many of them had a minor impact on the county, but two of the serious ones happened in 1921 and Hurricane Donna in 1960 caused extensive flooding. It was at this time that our state government created the five water management districts. Our district is the Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as SWFWMD and SWIFTMUD.

This canal is part of a canal system connecting to a canal from Sawgrass Lake and carrying water through Sawgrass Lake Park to the flood control gates. Turner Creek flows into the canal at the junction of the flood control gate where the water is diverted through the flood control gates into another canal that flows under I -275 and connects with a series of canals flowing eastward into Riviera Bay.

As you look out on the canal, you will see that the canal divides two separate and distinct habitats. On the far side, or west side of the canal is the maple swamp habitat. It has a lower elevation and is seasonally flooded. The grass area you see creating the bank of the canal is fill from when the canal was dug. The grass area provides a border for the canal and the maple swamp.

The east side of the canal or near side was once a pine flatwoods which has been cleared and maintained. This side of the canal has a higher elevation and rarely floods. This side of the canal was once the ancient shoreline of Sawgrass Lake.

Some of the plants to look for are live oak trees, red maple trees, american elm trees, sabal palm trees, red bay trees, azalea bushes, wild coffee plants, and ferns.

You may also spot Air Potato vines, Moonflower vines, Bleeding Heart Vines and Wild Grape vines.

The flood control canal helps to control local flooding. It also provides habitat for aquatic plants and animals. The canal supports many forms of aquatic life making it a palustrine ecosystem.

Mosquito fish, Largemouth Bass, Florida Gars, Blackchinned Tilapia (Nile perch), Golden shinners and Sunfish are some of the resident fish in the canal. Several amphibians depend on the canal for food and egg laying. Pig frogs, Bull Frogs, and Leopard Frogs are the most common water frogs. Southern Toads and Green Tree Frogs also lay eggs in the canal which hatch into tadpoles.

Wading birds frequent the edge of the canal seeking food from the canal. White Ibis, Snowy Egrets, White egrets (also called American Egret, Common Egret), Little Blue Herons, Great Blue Herons, Tricolored Herons, Little Green-Backed Heron, Anhinga (also called Snakebird or Water Turkey), Gallinules, Grebes, and Mottled Ducks are commonly seen. Sometimes a Black-Crowned Night Heron, Yellow-Crowned Night Heron, Limpkin, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Skimmer, Mallard Duck and several species of Terns are seen around the canal.

Turtles and alligators live in the canal and occasionally can be seen sunning themselves on the far bank of the canal during cooler weather. Occasionally a River Otter can also be seen swimming in the canal. This usually happens during the winter when the local River Otters use the waterways of Sawgrass Lake Park for their habitat.

Armadillos and rabbits are sometimes seen on the canal bank. The best time to see them is during an overcast day or near dawn or dusk.

Dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies are seen flying around the canal and along the edge of the swamp. Some of the more common butterflies seen in this area are the Sulphur butterflies, Black Swallowtail, Tiger Swallowtail, Giant Swallowtail and Zebra Long Wing.

There are many emergent and submerged plants in the canal. The green confetti-like floating plant is Duck Weed. This plant is eaten by many plant-eating fish, turtles and birds. Water Hyacinths and Water Lettuce are seen floating in the canal and provide cover for fish and sometimes alligators.

The submerged plants in the canal are Hydrilla, Elodea, Alligator Weed and Parrot’s Feather. These are exotic plants which have been introduced to the waterways of Florida and cause problems for native aquatic plants. They can survive a wide variety of water conditions so they are able to out-compete our native plants. In order to control their growth, a harvester machine will be launched in the canal to remove the plants. Since mosquitoes lay their eggs in the vegetation, the mosquito control airboat is sometimes seen spraying the aquatic vegetation in the canal.

The water level of the canal varies due to rainfall and seasonal changes. In the drier seasons, evaporation causes the level to change gradually. During rain, the level of the canal may change quickly. Unfortunately, runoff rainwater may carry some litter from nearby neighborhoods into the canal system.

Anderson Environmental Education Center

Sawgrass Lake Park is one of the last natural areas in highly urbanized Pinellas County, Florida. This area represents the combined efforts of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), Pinellas County School Board and the Pinellas County Park Department. These agencies are working together to provide the general public and school children with insight into the environment in which they live.

The approximately 400 acres of Sawgrass Lake Park's environment and ecosystems consist of a Red Maple swamp, wetlands, Live oak hammock, open fields, canals and lakes. The park not only provides a unique learning opportunity for school and community groups, with passive nature exploration, but it also acts as a water retention site protecting the surrounding communities from flood damage. Sawgrass Lake, a natural lake, receives and stores excess water run-off and using a network of man-made canals, moves the overflow into Tampa Bay.

The meandering elevated boardwalks that wind through the wetlands, and the nature trails within the park enable visitors to experience and explore a good portion of the park. There is an overlook tower providing a panoramic view of Sawgrass Lake, and during fall, winter and spring months, neotropical migrating birds use the cover of the swamp and hammock, as well as the lake on their migration sojourns. The canals provide a showcase for water birds and native wildlife such as alligators. Large oaks, cabbage palms, hickory trees, long-leaf pine, and saw palmetto abide in the drier regions of the park.

The Anderson Environmental Education Center houses a laboratory, an environmental education classroom, and display facilities consisting of a 300 gallon aquarium, bird of prey display, a Native American display of the Tocobaga culture, and several live non-venomous snake cages.

Acquired and Developed by the Pinellas-Anclote River Basin Board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District Educational Programs by the Pinellas County School Board Maintained and Operated by the Pinellas County Park Department

Copyright © 2010 The Florida Geographic Alliance