The Manatee River forms at the northeastern corner of Manatee County and flows into the Gulf of Mexico on the southern edge of Tampa Bay. The river is 36 miles long with a watershed that is approximately 362 square miles. An estuary lies at the lower part of the River below the dam. Bradenton and other small communities are located along its banks, with the Braden River, the main tributary running through the communities of River Club and Lakewood Ranch.
The area is abundant with wildlife which includes alligators, herons, manatees, dolphins, bass, bluegill, catfish and gar. Occasionally in the brackish water, you will find bull sharks near the low-lying outlet. For paddlers, there is the Upper Manatee River Canoe Trail that runs from Fort Hamer County Park to the Manatee Dam. Depending on the tides, the tea-colored river can be shallow. Occasionally water is released from the dam; prior to the release, there is a warning siren. At low tide, you will find sandbars to pull over to for a picnic or to stretch.
Although there are many regulations, the Manatee River Estuary is used for commercial fishing. Harvested for commercial fishing are finfish, invertebrates, bait and food shrimp. Depending on the time of year, looking for the warmest waters, you will find manatees throughout the river.
Many of the state’s birds that are endangered can be found around the river. Some of the endangered birds are the wood stork, snowy plover, bald eagle, Florida scrub-jay and the peregrine falcon. Birds that are not part of the endangered species that are found around the river include the cattle egret, white ibis, great blue heron, and the yellow-crowned night heron.
Both the Manatee River and the Braden River have been impounded to create two reservoirs for the potable supply in the watershed. One reservoir is Ward Lake, also known as the Bill Evers Reservoir and the other is Lake Manatee Reservoir.
Upstream on the narrow winding Braden River is Ward Lake. Built in the 1930s, it covers 255 acres and supplies the majority of water to the city of Bradenton. Built-in 1967 is the 1,174 acres artificial Lake Manatee upstream on the Manatee River. It is the primary water supply for Manatee County.
With three physiographic locations: plains, lowlands, and uplands the river contains areas that have hardwood swamps, mesic flatwoods, coastal lowlands, and marshes. In the highlands, you will find that scattered bushes, pine trees, and marshes. The soil in the highlands is moderately well drained, whereas in the marshes and swamps have very poorly drained soil and have water-tolerant grasses. In the uplands areas with poorly drained soil, you will find flatwoods, saw palmettos and slash pines.
As with so many areas in Florida, the increase in development of the area surrounding the Manatee River and watershed has decreased the quality of water in the River. Within the ecological communities is a rising fear in the use of organic pesticides. In the Bill Evers Reservoir, uprooting of the forested wetlands and uplands has caused an excess of nutrients. Both reservoirs have seen an increase in the levels of lead, zinc, and copper.
Photograph credit to Susan of Susan’s Kayaks.