One of Florida’s most protected pristine swamps is drying up, facing a water supply dilemma. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, northeast of Naples, has seen its water flow sharply diminish as development booms all around it.
The swamp sits on 13,000 acres of undisturbed woodlands on the edge of the Big Cypress National Preserve. It contains over 700 acres of virgin Bald Cypress trees, the largest remaining concentration in the world.
Corkscrew is owned and maintained by the National Audubon Society, and 100,000 visitors a year walk the 2.25-miles of boardwalk that winds through the sanctuary. It is home to migrating birds, alligators, and even an occasional Florida Panther.
The swamp is used to the natural ebb and flow of water. The winter months are usually dry, the summer months are usually wet. But changes are occurring outside the natural seasons.
“Starting in 2000 water levels began dropping precipitously,” says Brad Cornell, Audubon’s point person for working with government on environmental issues. A hydrology study commissioned by Audubon identified the drainage canals around the sanctuary as the main culprit, even though the canals are not on sanctuary property. “There are canals all around us,” Cornell observes. Audubon is looking at options to keep the wetlands in Corkscrew wet.
North and east of Corkscrew is mostly agriculture land, and irrigation canals draw water away from the sanctuary to irrigate the crops and provide fertile land for planting. West and south of Corkscrew is development of the rapidly expanding Naples community. Here canals draw water away to make land suitable for building housing, golf courses and commercial development.
“Corkscrew is influenced heavily by what’s going on around it,” says Cornell. The changes have dramatically altered the sanctuary. The swamp was a natural habitat for nesting wood storks in the winter. Now they are rarely seen, their population estimated at only 10% of what it used to be.
“They are destroying wetlands to build homes and roads. The canals are effective, too effective,” Cornell says.
Audubon is exploring options to protect its water resources in the sanctuary. Thought has been given to importing clay to form dam-like barriers to block off the flow of water out of the swamp. The clay barriers would have to go deep beneath the surface as the water flows naturally through the underground limestone formations.
The South Florida Water Management District and Collier County are on board with the effort to find a solution. “They want to help,” Cornell says. But it’s hard to ignore that over 30,000 acres of wetlands have been lost to development in Collier County since 1996, according to Cornell. He estimates 80% of the wetlands in Corkscrew are in peril.
Everyone seems to agree that buying and protecting land is necessary. Collier County has a special property tax that is assessed for that purpose. Voters renewed it in 2020 by a resounding 74% of the vote. There are also negotiations to trade off land with developers. In one case 12,200 acres were protected, while 3,500 acres were set aside for development.
Meanwhile, in addition to man-made pressures, Corkscrew is impacted by climate change. The dry seasons in the winter are longer and dryer. It’s noticeably colder in the winter, impacting the natural flora of the area, which can not withstand prolonged cold snaps. The natural wet seasons in the summer and fall replenish the water supply, but not enough to restore it back to normal.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a natural treasure, one of the few wilderness areas in southwest Florida remaining. The boardwalk through the swamp is open daily and the visitor level is slowly returning to pre-Covid levels, but Audubon is still restricting access and encouraging social distancing. Visitors are required to book a reservation online. No walk-ins are allowed.