A River Runs Through It

The story of Gainesville’s Sweetwater Branch Creek 

Running through the heart of what is now Gainesville, Florida, Sweetwater Branch Creek was once a six-mile-long, spring-fed stream that made its way through Paynes Prairie to the Alachua Sink and into the Floridan aquifer. This now urban creek has been altered to prevent flooding, paved over, built over, and is the recipient of street runoff and treated wastewater. But this is not just a sad story of human actions but one of human invention and ingenuity. 

In the 1600s, Paynes Prairie was La Chua, the largest cattle ranch in Spanish Florida. Two hundred years later, it was home to the Seminole Indians and named for their chief, King Payne, who died 1812. The Seminoles were driven out after the Second Seminole War (1842) and in the late 1800s, seasons of heavy rain turned the prairie into Alachua Lake, on which steam boats transported passengers, lumber, and other goods. Natural drainage occurred in the late 1890s returning the prairie to its original mash. Then, in steps man, who wants more dry ground for cattle, and thus builds a canal in the 1930s to connect Sweetwater Branch Creek directly to the Alachua Sink; this effectively drained the prairie. Over the decades, the disruption of this natural sheet flow led to the contamination of the Alachua Sink by urban runoff, trash, and wastewater. The sink was placed on Florida’s impaired bodies of water list. But in steps man again, this time in 2009, to create the Paynes Prairie Sheetflow Restoration Project. Trash is corralled, wastewater treatment improved, the sheet flow through the prairie restored through deep water areas and wetlands. The canal is filled in to create an amazing habitat for birds and wildlife, with gravel trails and boardwalks for public enjoyment and a connection back to old Florida.

Beginning at Boulware Springs, visit the springs and waterworks, which once supplied Gainesville with water and now flow into Paynes Prairie. From here, hike north along the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail to the Sweetwater Preserve Trailhead (1.2 mile loop with side trails for exploring). Pick up a trail map and head west, exploring eight different natural habitats, including sandhill, baygall, sinkhole lake and floodplain forest. Cross the bridge to see Sweetwater Branch in its natural environs, returning via the loop to your car. 

Continue down SE 15th St., turning right on Camp Ranch Rd. to reach the La Chua Trailhead (1 mile round trip), where you will see the Alachua Sink, Paynes Prairie’s drain. If open, and not flooded, a 1.6-mile trail leads deep into the prairie, where bison, wild horses, and alligators roam. 

Back in your car, head to Sweetwater Wetlands Park off of Williston Rd. Stroll along the boardwalks and paths taking in the afternoon light, spotting birds or baby gators, reveling in this man-made mitigation system that allows nature to heal itself. This park project has restored the natural water flow to more than 1,300 acres of formerly drained wetlands in Paynes Prairie. It has filtered out pollution and nutrients through natural nitrogen-absorbing plants and improved the water quality in the Alachua Sink and the Floridan aquifer. All of this, while increasing conservation lands that are accessible for the public enjoyment of our beautiful natural Florida.

By Betsy Schifanella  ~  Photos by Tom Schifanella

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