In Florida, a lake, river or stream is considered "impaired" if it fails to meet specific water quality standards, according to its intended use. For example:
Class I waters must meet safe drinking water standards;
Class II waters must be suitable for growing and harvesting shellfish that are safe to eat;
Class III waters must be safe for a variety of recreational purposes including boating, swimming, etc. and also for the purposes of sustaining a well-balanced population of fish and wildlife;
Class IV waters are intended for use as Agricultural Water Supplies; and
Class V waters are intended for navigation, utility and/or industrial use.
Within each of these five categories, water managers rely on a variety of data to determine if the water resource has been impaired. To make this determination, they study the creatures living in the water resource (e.g., algae, bacteria, plants and wildlife) along with water chemistry and physical characteristics such as water clarity and/or turbidity.
Statewide reporting of these data is available in the 303(d) Report which is compiled and updated every three years by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The state's minimum water quality criteria (or standards) are available in Florida's Administrative Code (FAC), Chapter 62-303, as part of the Impaired Waters Rule (IWR). » Read more about the Impaired Waters Rule.
Many types of data are collected in efforts to determine whether or not a water resource is impaired. Some of the information is collected by state agencies, while other data are collected by trained volunteers.
Biological data includes information about algae, bacteria, plants and other wildlife:
Algae sampling generally involves filtering water samples through special glass-fiber filters; these filters "trap" algal cells so they can be analyzed for chlorophyll concentrations in the laboratory.
Bacterial monitoring involves the collection and filtration of surface water samples, and the incubation of the filtrate (bacteria caught by the filter). After incubation, colonies indicator bacteria (i.e., fecal coliform, total coliforms, E. coli, etc.) appear as clusters of red or blue dots (depending on the type of test you use) on the filter. These colonies are counted, and an assessment can then be made about whether the waterbody is a potential health risk.
The term "wildlife" includes birds, fish, macroinvertebrates, etc., which are usually monitored by counting the number of different species and their actual abundance living in a water resource. The presence or absence of some animals is often an indicator of water resource health. For more on this, see Macroinvertebrates Learn More.
Water chemistry data are also obtained from in-situ (i.e., within the water) and lab analyses of surface water samples. This often includes analyses for various forms of nitrogen and/or phosphorus—two essential nutrient groups found in virtually all water bodies, as well as, making dissolved oxygen measurements.
Physical characteristics such as water clarity and/or turbidity and suspended solids are measured in order to facilitate an accurate assessment.
For more information, please refer to Florida LAKEWATCH Circulars.
See Atlas data.
It is important to note that even if some of these values exceed state standards, it doesn't necessarily mean a water resource is impaired. Water quality characteristics may vary considerably from one sampling event to the next in response to changes in weather conditions, stream flow, and many other variables. Scientists look for significant changes over a period of time, before they consider the waterbody impaired.
This approach of identifying and prioritizing impaired waters is part of the Clean Water Act of 1977 and also the 1999 Florida Watershed Restoration Act. As a result of these legislative acts, science-based pollution limits, called Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs), are being developed to promote the clean-up of each and every impaired waterway. For more information about impaired waters and the standards being used to evaluate them, read: