Wednesday, December 8, 2021


Modeling tool developed to help manage water distribution

Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (RBNERR) has completed the “Restoring the Rookery Bay Estuary” project, a three-year watershed-focused research project aimed at understanding freshwater inflows to the Rookery Bay estuary and associated ecological effects. A significant outcome of the research has been the development of a hydrologic model, which is a tool that can be used by private and public sectors to run different scenarios to help manage the volume and timing of water entering the estuary.

Guided by a diverse advisory group comprising local, state, federal and non-profit stakeholders, the project focused on gaining a better understanding of altered freshwater inflows and gaining insights on how local water resource decisions are made and implemented.

“Through this project, we have learned about changes in the Rookery Bay watershed over the past 75 years,” said Kevin Cunniff, research coordinator at RBNERR and applied science lead for the project. “Based on the data, we learned that the overall amount of fresh water entering the estuary has not changed significantly, but the distribution and timing of fresh water entering the estuary is considerably different. This new understanding can help us better develop and implement strategies aimed at restoring a more natural hydrology within this watershed, which will benefit the ecology of the estuary, while continuing to meet public water supply and flood control needs.”

The project used an integrated watershed management approach and hydrologic, biological and social science research to identify freshwater distribution issues, estuarine ecological impacts and potential solutions for mitigating impacts and restoring a more natural watershed hydrology. Results can be used to improve the quality, timing and volume of freshwater inflows into surrounding estuarine and coastal environments. These improvements can enhance downstream habitats, such as seagrasses and oysters, which support robust fisheries and the recreational and commercial interests that rely on them.

“We are pleased to partner with Rookery Bay on this project,” said Lisa Koehler, South Florida Water Management District’s Big Cypress Basin administrator. “Placing their model in our Model Management System provides user-friendly access to model data saving time and money on future modeling data collection.”

In addition to understanding changes in freshwater inflows to the estuary over time, the project provided insights into how marine life in the Rookery Bay estuary study area has responded to changes in salinity based on historic fisheries research conducted in Rookery Bay since the 1970s. The project also identified and mapped current RBNERR aquatic benthic habitat resources through high-resolution aerial imagery analysis and specifically assessed changes in seagrass within the Rookery Bay study area based on historical imagery analyses. Lastly, the project conducted social science to better understand local attitudes about water.

The project was funded in 2011 through an $815,000 grant awarded by NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System’s (NERRS) Science Collaborative funding program and commenced in 2012. RBNERR staff worked with contractors such as hydrologists, engineers and university faculty on project components including aerial imagery, maps and educational products. A comprehensive final project report will be available online at in September.

Twenty-eight National Estuarine Research Reserves from around the continental United States and Puerto Rico were invited to apply for this grant. Of the 17 proposals submitted, seven were funded including RBNERR’s proposal. The NERRS Science Collaborative is jointly administered by NOAA and the University of New Hampshire.


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