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The Florida Canal System: An Essential to Coastal Living

written by
Linda McDonagh

The above maps paint two very different pictures of a community reliant on a storm water canal system.

Canals are manmade waterways dug into wetlands, rivers and streams to divert waters – and the state of Florida has well over a thousand miles worth of them carved into it. These canals range from a few feet to hundreds wide, and from a few feet to as deep as thirty-five.

For many Floridian communities, their miles-long canal systems are essential to keeping them above water, with functions including:

  • Flood control for hurricanes and other storm events
  • Drainage for Florida’s rainfall – which averages 60 inches a year
  • Deterring water around and beneath road structures
  • Recreational use and navigation to lakes, coastal waters and other canals

What Happens When Aquatic Plants in Canals aren’t Managed?

In a warm, wet climate such as Florida’s, native and invasive aquatic plants are apt to grow year-round – and those within canal systems are no exception to this rule. These plants can obstruct boats or, worse, impact the canal’s draining and flood preventing functions as they impede water flow. For a lot of communities, their homes, businesses, parks and more are at stake.

This is why millions are spent each year throughout Florida trying to manage and mitigate the impacts of aquatic vegetation on canals and prevent further damages from flooding. But with ever-increasing temperatures and rising sea levels, it’s more important than ever to keep canal water flowing as much as possible.

A Floridian canal

Clarke’s Approach to One Community’s Canal Maintenance and Aquatic Plant Management

The Village of Wellington is a community centered around its outdoor resources – polo, equestrianism, and hiking and birdwatching in local nature preserves such as the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Natural Area. As seen in the maps above, the majority of its streets, parks and land is at risk of being consumed by floodwaters given the correct circumstances.

An overview of a Florida stormwater system

Clarke Aquatic Services has worked with the Village of Wellington to manage their canal system’s aquatic vegetation for several years, an effort backed by our experienced team of aquatic biologists and technicians who opt for a prescriptive approach based on real-time diagnostics.

In an environment where aquatic plants thrive year-round, simply applying herbicides when growth becomes impactful is not enough, leading to hard-to-contain outbreaks. On the other hand, applying product continuously to prevent growth is wasteful, costly and can have negative impacts on healthy plant and nutrient levels.

And in addition to high rates of plant growth, invasives such as Crested Floating Heart – a rooted, floating plant that scales canal waters from top to bottom, impeding water flow and obstructing recreational use – have taken root in many Floridian canals. This plant, as well as many others, “fragments”, meaning parts of the plant break off and continue growing independently when agitated by boats or mechanical harvesters. In an interconnected canal system, this means that a problem in one area is apt to become a problem elsewhere very soon.

Tackling Ongoing Aquatic Plant Problems

Clarke’s team combats this by inspecting and treating the entirety of the Village’s 110+ miles of canal waterways each month rather than relying on nuisance reports from residents or overapplying products.

The team dedicates three full-time, licensed aquatic applicators to survey each section of the Village and its parks, as well as to respond to customer notices and to conduct more frequent checks of known hotspots.

Clarke’s aquatic biologists have also utilized past data to inform aquatic plant management strategies to target different plant species during the spring, summer and fall – treating the plants at each stage of their lifecycle to mitigate growth in the next stage – as well as devised year-round treatment plans for prominent species such as the aforementioned Crested Floating Heart or Vallisneria (eel/tape grass).

To aid in this work, they have also worked with the Village to implement canal structures that aid in mitigating weed spread throughout the canal system. This includes recommendations for the installation of “vegetation containment booms”. A vegetation containment boom consists of a sturdy ribbon strung across the width of a canal, extending a foot or so above and below the water’s surface to catch floating debris without restricting the overall flow of water.

A boat navigating a canal filled with plants

Aquatic Plant Management in Action: Preventing Untold Flood Damages

At Clarke, we believe that aquatic plant management for any Floridian community is year-round work that relies on continuity to be effective. And this was recently proven during recent heavy storms that occurred almost daily in the early summer season.

While Florida’s official hurricane season spans from June through August, even smaller storm events or persistent rains can lead to flooding and damages. Many portions of South Florida saw heavy rains almost daily from late April through July – and with those rains came many incidents of flooding, damages and need for critical intervention.

Waterfront apartments

But within the Village of Wellington, the canal systems were free of obstructive plants or weeds. This lack of obstruction gave the Village several compounding advantages as rainfall continued:

  • Water flow continued seamlessly, with little disruption.
  • With healthy and relatively minimal existing aquatic plant growth, the system was unobstructed to start with.
  • Debris that blew or washed into the canals was either caught by the vegetation containment booms or had little additional effect on the relatively unobstructed water flow.
  • Lower levels of plant life and debris meant that the canal system was able to function as needed, containing and diverting water away from homes, roads, parks and businesses.

Thanks to the ongoing, comprehensive work of the Clarke Aquatic team to provide care and appropriate treatment for the native and invasive aquatic plants of the Village, Wellington’s canal system remained fully functional throughout heavy rains and storm events.

With a proper aquatic plant management strategy in place, an ounce of prevention is quite literally worth a pound of cure.

Thank you to our Clarke Aquatics Team of aquatic biologists, technicians and field supervisors  based out of our Wellington office for their hard work and daily dedication to our mission to Give Water Life. 

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Healthy Plants Make for a Healthy Waterbody

The breadth of ever-changing factors acting on waterbodies – such as recreational use, weather, run-off, nutrients and more – makes maintaining the plants and algae within your waterbodies challenging. Without having a tailored ongoing aquatic plant management plan in place, it is all too easy for these factors to go unnoticed, resulting in potentially disastrous and expensive outcomes.

Clarke’s team of experts brings decades of experience to each water body, working to meet the established goals and mitigate harmful outside effects on the entire water system.

Let’s Talk About Your Water’s Plants