Rollin' on the River

The Little Manatee River is One Step Closer to Being a Protected Waterway

A bill that passed the U.S. House aims to designate the river as “scenic,” which would protect it from development and maintain it for future generations.

Photography by Kim Doleatto October 7, 2022

Aerial view of the Little Manatee River.

The Little Manatee River

Earlier this year, the acquisition of Rattlesnake Key in Manatee County was a win for lovers of unspoiled Old Florida and local conservationists. Now there's more good news: the Little Manatee Wild and Scenic River Act has passed the U.S. House with broad bipartisan support.

The bill (HR 4358) aims to designate the approximately 51-mile-long segment of the river, beginning in southeastern Hillsborough County and flowing downstream to Tampa Bay, as a "scenic" river. A formal National Park Service (NPS) study of the river will occur before an official designation can occur.

"We don't have a wild and scenic river in our region. I think this is an opportunity to highlight the beauty of the Tampa Bay estuary. It'll do a lot of good for the longer-term management of the river and also boost eco-tourism," says Ed Sherwood, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP), an intergovernmental partnership that includes Manatee County, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).

On the state level, the Little Manatee River is recognized as an "Outstanding Florida Water" and is one of the most pristine blackwater rivers in the state. It's the third-largest river in Hillsborough County and its health is connected to the surrounding area, including the intertidal wetlands of the Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve

Designating the Little Manatee River as "scenic" ensures its kept in its current untouched condition, protecting it from development and maintaining it as a destination for nature lovers who canoe, kayak, boat and fish. The scenic designation would also add the Little Manatee River to the National Park Service’s Wild and Scenic River System, which conserves free-flowing rivers across the country.

Once added to the National Park Service’s Wild and Scenic River System, the NPS would collaborate with local Florida government officials to develop a management plan for the river. The plan must include how the existing natural environment will be preserved including allowing for continued public use. 

"There's roughly 20 years worth of plans for restoration like creating salt marsh habitat where there was old agriculture, hammocks, coastal habitats, fresh water and marshes. Those habitats support the redfish and snook that we cherish here," says Sherwood.

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was created by Congress in 1968 to safeguard rivers and encourage river management that promotes public participation. The Loxahatchee River and the Wekiva River are the only rivers in Florida recognized thus far under the federal program. 

The U.S. Senate still has to approve the bill and send it to the president for signature to become law. 

Click here for a list of Little Manatee River boat ramps, a river paddling trail guide and more.

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