Believe it or not, Phillippi Creek has over 100 miles of canals, which is more than the city of Venice, Italy. To uncover why there are so many of these man-made channels, we have to go back more than 100 years.

Phillippi Creek watershed (in red) with its canals (in blue). Credit: Sarasota County

Florida is called the water state, not only because it is surrounded by water, but also because it is filled with water. Historically in Southwest Florida, you could find pockets of marshes and wetlands in nearly everywhere, especially during the wet season. The prevalence of these water features made land-based travel, farming, and general livelihood somewhat difficult. 

Photo of North Sarasota. All of the dark circles and spots represent marshes & wetlands. Credit: Sarasota County

The first people of Florida recognized this challenge and adapted their lifestyles to the seasonal conditions. Archaeological research shows more than 10,000 years of seasonal occupation by indigenous people in Sarasota. When European settlers arrived, they too realized the difficulties of Florida’s climate and landscape. However, their adaptive approach was a little different. Similar to what we still do today, early European settlers adapted the landscape to fit their lifestyles. Today, much of the way we experience water flow in Florida is due to how early settlers shaped the land and moved the water around.

In early Sarasota, much of the travel was by boat. The Steamboat “Mistletoe” (1895) carried cargo fuel, pine, and the only supply of ice between Sarasota and Tampa every other day. Credit: State Library & Archives of Florida

In the late 1800s/early 1900s, large scale dredging projects were implemented to drain many of the marshes and wetlands for farming and other uses. A historic engineering report shows one example a drainage project undertaken in Phillippi Creek in the late 1880s. The Florida Mortgage and Investment Company and a handful of engineers ditched 3,500 acres of sawgrass marsh, channeling the water into the Phillippi Creek.

The report goes into detail about the specifications of the channel.

It is easy to forget that early engineers did not have the same kind of machinery we have today. Much of the ditching was done through manual and animal labor, which comes with its own set of challenges.

It is also interesting to note even at the outset, there was some discrepancy regarding how deep these kinds of channels should be and how consistent maintenance was needed for their proper function. There is also a emphasis on straightening these channels, which we still see evidence of today. 

By the end of the dredging projects in the 1920s, an estimated 100,000 acres freshwater marshes were lost in Sarasota, and the hydrology of the area was completely changed. The creeks and bayous that were channeled started receiving extra rainwater and pollution during typical storms, which many waterways to this day cannot handle. Combined with the 92% loss of saltwater wetlands since development, the resulting situation leaves us with complicated, ongoing flooding and water quality issues.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Although existing development prohibits us from completely restoring the natural flow and placement of water in our area, there are things we can all do that allow water to “be” without getting into our homes and flooding our streets.

1. Learn About Florida’s Water

Whether you are a new resident yourself or know someone who is relatively new to Florida, there are so many things that make this state wonderfully unique, including how Florida has evolved with water.

Did you know?
  • Since first forming, Florida has spent the majority of its existence under the surface of the ocean.
  • Excess water in your yard during a rain is NOT a bad thing. Most likely your yard was a marsh or a wetland at some point. It’s safer there than in your home or on the street.
  • That lake in the middle of your apartment complex is not a lake, and it was not put there for aesthetics. It’s actually a stormwater pond, which are required for all new developments to capture and filter water that used to be filtered by the land/vegetation your apartment complex displaced.
Visit the UF/IFAS Extension Water Resources website or explore the Sarasota County Water Atlas to learn about historic and current water issues.

2. Create Places for Water

Knowing that water needs somewhere to go, is there a place in your yard you could put a rain garden? Does your neighborhood ditch need a little makeover to become a beautiful bioswale? Can you add plants around your condo’s stormwater pond to increase its water uptake and filtering capacity?

Learn how bioswales and rain gardens help clean and capture water and find professional support for your own project.

3. Support Restoration and Conservation

There are many groups exploring the idea of restoring the natural “curviness” and shoreline plant communities along previously dredged canals or shorelines, some of which may run through your neighborhood.

Restored streams and living shorelines:

  • Reduce stormwater maintenance costs (currently funded by your tax dollars)
  • Improve the aesthetics of canals
  • Provide more water filtering and absorption capacity
  • Offer places for fish and birds to shelter and feed
Learn more about living shorelines and stream restoration.
Sign up to volunteer for local restoration projects.