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'Wet' Dry season is reviving Sanibel's freshwater habitats

Posted at 5:49 PM, Jan 25, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-25 17:49:03-05

SANIBEL, Fla. — We all know how wet it has been this January across southwest Florida. Normally, this time of year at the Sanibel River, it's dry but looks like summertime.

"We have an unusual amount of rain right now," said Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation's Wildlife & Habitat Management Director Chris Lechowicz.

Sanibel soaked up more than three times the normal rainfall since Dec. 1. And as Fox 4 Meteorologist Andrew Shipley worked his way to the Sanibel River, he had to walk-through ankle-deep water and mud-covered hiking trails because of the recent rain.

"We are at the end of January,” said Lechowicz. “We are in the dry season. It should be getting very dry here on the island."

While that might sound like a bad thing, more than 10 inches of rain is reviving freshwater habitats that got flushed out with Hurricane Ian's salty surge waters.

"Many wildlife species are not adapted to actually live in brackish water, so it became a big issue," said Lechowicz.

That rapid influx of salt and brackish water led to killing numerous species on the island.

"We were able to go back and re-document most animals here on the island,” said Lechowicz. “We still have a few missing things, there is a snake, a lizard, a couple mammals that we haven't seen. But most things are still here, just in very low numbers. So, it is going to take years for those numbers to come back."

For those populations to return, the island needs fresh water. Unfortunately, between last year's dry season and this past summer's below average wet season, that rain is just arriving this winter.

"Unfortunately, this time of year, a lot of animals are not as active,” said Lechowicz. “It's not that they are dormant, because it doesn't get cold enough for that, but they are less active. So, there might not be a lot of breeding right now, but if this water endures until it starts warming up that's going to start to occur."

If the rain keeps up through spring and summer, that might force City of Sanibel to release some of the brackish water into Tarpon Bay.

"If that happens it's going to allow a lot of the brackish water to go,” said Lechowicz. “The areas we are more worried about are the impounded areas, like a lot of the housing developments, neighborhoods, etc. They have these lakes that dug behind them."

Those neighborhood lakes and smaller ponds could take years to fully return to freshwater, but this recent influx of rainwater is bringing salinities down and providing freshwater pools for all forms of wildlife.