Martin County’s Hundreds of Ponds, “Down the Drain,” St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

1940 aerial photo from the US Dept of Agriculture Flight over Martin County, Fl 1940. Here Stuart, Sewall's Point, Hutchinson Island and Jensen are easily recognized by air. (Photo courtesy of UF Smathers' Library collation.)
1940 aerial photo from a US Dept of Agriculture flight over Martin County, Fl. 1940. Stuart, Sewall’s Point, Hutchinson Island and Jensen are easily recognized by air along the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon. Many small ponds can be seen darkly colored. (Photo courtesy of UF Smather’s Library collation.)


1964 photo, left to right, uncle and aunt Dale and Mary Hudson, and my parents Sandy and Tom Thurlow. Me in lap. (Self portrait)
1964 photo, (left to right) uncle and aunt, Dale and Mary Hudson, and my parents Sandy and Tom Thurlow. Me in lap. (Family album.)

From the time I was a baby until growing up, I remember lots of ponds here in the region of the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon. Hundreds of ponds intertwined with scrub lands…

Some of these boggy ponds were right outside my neighborhood in St Lucie Estates, just off of East Ocean Boulevard. It was the 1960s and 70s. Over time, especially in the 80s and 90s, when I had grown up and was off to University of Florida and beyond, these ponds simply dried up and “disappeared.” These lands became shopping centers, an expanded Witham Field, gas stations, schools, golf courses, and more neighborhoods. The same thing happened to the lands out west of town, but they became expanded agricultural lands. At a kid, I didn’t think too much about it. Today it blows my mind.

The aerial at the top of this blog post is from 1940. I was born in 1964. The small dark areas are ponds. When I asked my brother Todd, who is very knowledgeable on these old photos and land use, where all the ponds went, he noted  that when our area canals were constructed by the water districts and Army Corp of Engineers, from about 1920 to the 1960s, the canals not only drained the lands, but over time, the water table dropped, (the water below the surface of the soil that you don’t see)  drying out the many of little ponds, so that these lands could be developed.

Canals in Stuart, C-23, C-24, C-25 built in the 50s and 60s. C-44 connected to Lake Okeechobee constructed in the 1920s.
Canals in Martin and St Lucie counties, C-23, C-24, C-25 were  constructed in the 50s and 60s. C-44 is connected to Lake Okeechobee but also drains the agricultural lands around it. It was constructed in the 1920s.

So most of the 1940 wetlands you see in the aerials throughout this blog are now gone, and “we are here.” This happened all over Martin, St Lucie and almost all counties of south Florida. This on top of the shrinkage and drainage of giant Lake Okeechobee!


There is something is really odd about this. Millions of people living in former wetlands. Like sitting atop a dry sponge. No wonder all the wildlife is gone and the rivers are polluted. I’ve heard people talk about this change forever, and I have lived it myself, but seeing my brother’s video below, really bring the whole thing “home.” Watch and wonder where we should go from here…

Click here to see Martin County’s land use change over time, and watch the little ponds/wetlands “disappear. ” Time flight video by Todd Thurlow: 


Link to video: (

The flight starts in the area around Pratt & Whitney in northern Palm Beach County / southern Martin County where the land still looks like much of Martin County used to look. We then fly to the area around Bridge Road where the headwaters of the South Fork used to be nice and wet in the 1940s. Hundreds of interconnected ponds and bogs eventually coalesced into the tributaries of the South Fork. Today the ponds have been drained for farming and a few neighborhoods. The smallest tributaries are now drainage ditches. Next we fly over the area around the City of Stuart and Witham Field. You can see how the old ponds and bogs lined up between low ridges that run parallel to the ocean. Many of the bogs are now low-lying dry nature preserves in the neighborhoods and golf courses. –Todd Thurlow


1940 DOA image of boarder between Martin and St Lucie Counties, where Port St Lucie sits  today.
1940 DOA image of border between Martin and St Lucie Counties, where Port St Lucie sits today.
1940 aerial of  east side of east side of Lake  Okeechobee and lands of western Martin and St Lucie counties.
1940 aerial of east side of east side of Lake Okeechobee and lands of western Martin and St Lucie counties.
Ponds and bogs that are still left in undeveloped areas of Matin County. (Photo JTL 2015)
Ponds and bogs that are still left in undeveloped areas of Martin County. (Photo JTL 2015.)


Todd Thurlow: ( 

(Link to University of Florida’s Smather’s Library aerials: ( 

9 thoughts on “Martin County’s Hundreds of Ponds, “Down the Drain,” St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

  1. To think that this was only just 55 or so years ago. The hydrology of Florida is so unique and interconnected, it’s amazing that no one seriously considered what the long term effects would be. In the next 50 years we’ll certainly have to though, or maybe it won’t matter, as sea levels are rising and it will be a different challenge.

    1. Thank you Ezra. It is amazing. I believe the two: drainage, and sea level rise are very connected as fresh water on the land slows saltwater seeping in. Yes the future will be something to see. 🙂 Great to hear from you!

  2. “A puddle repeats infinty and is full of light.”G.K. Chesterton Jacqui,Beautiful graphics. Those are what they call “wet prairies” or “ephemeral ponds” or “short hydroperiod wetlands”.Even before canals and development, they were wet in the summer and dried down in the winter.They are ephemeral – here today, dry tomorrow.. Their period of wetness is short. Without them we have no wading birds. The winter dry down concentrates the fish for egg laying mama birds and their little chicks.The Indian River Lagoon has lots of fish. It’s just not concentrated enough to produce a new generation. You know better than most that man’s initial efforts in Florida were to get rid of all that excess water. We couldn’t stand the variability of wet season and dry season and wet years and drought. We needed it dry to live on it or farm it.After WWII we had miles of suburban development. The wetlands were in the way. They had to be filled or drained. The homes needed water. Urban utilities draw dfown the water table. Utilty use is clear on the Stuart peninsula where the City’s growing water needs suck down the aquifer. Check the level of the Palm Beach Rd pond in a drought. The City kept needing water and kept pumping until the SFWMD made them stop. “mining water” is taking out more of the stored aquifer every year until it’s storage is sriously reduced. The human race has a great deal of trouble NOT mining water when it is there to take. For some years the SFWMD was an effective brake on disastrous overpumping. The rukles got chipped away at. The District policy states that lowering the water table by a foot is not lowering the water table. Regulators weren’t worried about wetlands. They were worried about salt intrusion. Check out Wikipedia’s article on”salt intrusion”. In a coastal area, it’s a good thing to know a lot about. Freshwater floats on saltwater. On the coast when you put a straw in the freshwater aquifer and suck and you eventually get saltwater. “The Ghyben-Herzberg ratio states, for every foot of fresh water in an unconfined aquifer above sea level, there will be forty feet of fresh water in the aquifer below sea level.” Lowering the water table a foot doesn’t sound like much, but it takes away 40ft of your freshwater aquifer and causes wells close to the coast to turn salt. That’s like Humpty Dumpty. It’s easier to break them than to fix them. If you continuously reduce the aquifer by mining water and you get an extreme drought, you will have a lot of wells that will be salty for a long time. Another variable in pond survival has been wetl;and regulation. Up Until the 60s and 70s state a federal regulators didn’t care. The federal Clean Water Act and the state Warren Henderson Wetland Law put in place definitions and protections for wetlands. Wetland areas. Wetlands, as defined in Florida Statutes section 373.019(25) or as may be amended, are those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface water or groundwater at a frequency and a duration sufficient to support, and under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soils.Martin County Comp Plan ch9 It used to be that a consultant could inspect the wetland in the dry season or in a drought year and declare that there was no wetland because there was no water. Now the federal, state, and loacl definition recognize that biological functions depend on water level variation over time. If the land is wet often enough to create soils that support OR CAN SUPPORT wetland vegetation, then it IS a wetland. Faced with policies that restricted development, a new strategy was created to facilitate development. It is called “wetland mitigation.” The wetland is declared to be stressed and non-functioning. A good biologist wil tell you that a “non-functioning wetland” is an oxymoron. It can’t be defined as a wetland unless it’s functioning. The argument went on to say that it was much better to trade second-rate wetlands for “good” wetlands. This was named mitigation. Martin County chose NOT to allow mitigation as a reason for destroying wetlands. That didn’t happen until 1982. The state and almost all other local governments allow functioning wetlands to be destroyed if the regulatory agency decides they are getting something better in return. The story of the failures of mitigation is a long sad tale that would take too long right now. The point is that “mitigation” led to trading little ponds for big wetlands because big is better. The glib response to that is that “God must have loved little wetlands or he wouldn’t have made so many.” The counter response was “There are so many it won’t matter if we fill some of them.” The CERP team recognized that if we wanted to keep South Florida’s wading bird population. we not only had to keep the little wetlands we had left, we had to expand the spatial extent of short hydroperiod wetlands. That is one of the over-arching goals of CERP. A final variable in how many puddles are left has been land acquisition. Martin County’s Lands For You Program in conjunction with state Save Our Rivers funding has put over 40,000 acres of pine flatwoods in public ownership. In Allapattah, Atlantic Ridge, and Palmar 40 to 50 percent of the “land” is little wetlands. It’s discouraging to look at the photos and see how much we’ve lots. It’s still nice to know, that, since 1982, we’ve done a better job than most at saving what is left.

    Date: Mon, 20 Apr 2015 11:58:09 +0000 To:

    1. Dear Maggy, “Commissioner Hurchalla,”

      What an honor to have a legend like you post such a comment on my blog. Your prose explains the “empirical little ponds” like poetry.

      I know that you probably more than anyone anywhere have protected and fought for our region’s “wetlands.”

      I graduated high school with your daughter Jane in 1982 and you were fighting for wetlands then, but I was thinking of other things…like leaving Stuart for university and an “exciting” future in an exotic place. When I “grew up” I wanted to go home to Stuart, but it was mostly gone by the time I returned in the late 90s. Thank God you saved some of it.

      As I mentioned in my blog, now I am paying attention.

      Maybe one of my next blog posts should be on what has been “saved” as Martin County has more than most thanks to you and a few others.

      Thanks for qualifying the hydro-period definition. I had heard of this but really did not know what it meant. Thinking about people removing water from surgical waters and the aquifer yes this is another crazy story to explore—-and that “one foot of water above can mean 40 feet below” is mind blowing.

      “Mitigation” is a word that has never sat well with me. Here in Sewall’s Point people have been allowed to remover a 300 year old enormous oak tree that saw the entire history of white men and some of native people here along the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon and then replace it with a comparable “circumference” in multiple non native trees and this is/has been considered “mitigating…” We have been working to really change this here…

      How one could mitigate or create a wetland sounds like politics to me. 🙂 Thank you so much for your comment. I will save it for reference in my most special file.

    2. And thank you Miss Maggy for being a huge part of why Martin County has some natural resources left!

  3. The destructive over-drainage continues with the help of influenced so-called leaders. It’s supposed to be policy that when property is developed or changed, no more water should drain off than did before the change.

    Had that policy been enforced for Big Sugar our problems would be so, so much less acute.
    Think once again of the 500 BILLION gallons shunted to tide in Stuart and Fort Myers just in 2013. The over-drainage protects a few subsidized private profits at the expense of the public and eco-system. Shame.

  4. The info is so cool and the video speaks loudly. I am sure those sand ponds where a major supporter of all of Mother Natures plan. Thanks Jacqui!

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