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In South Florida, where the Everglades meet the bays, environmental challenges abound. Sea level rise threatens homes and real estate. Invasive species imperil native plants and animals. Pesticides reduce the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, but at what cost? WLRN's award-winning environment reporting strives to capture the color and complexity of human interaction with one of the most biodiverse areas of the planet.

FAU Research Student Finds Carolina Willow Could Dry Up Florida Marshes

Michelle Budny

Florida Atlantic University held its fifth annual Broward Student Research Symposium at the Davie campus Friday. One student presenter found the Carolina willow, a native but invasive Florida plant, could dry up the state’s marshes. 
The willow has been increasingly invading St. Johns River for the last 50 years. Levees and canals, created to stabilize water levels in the river, caused the willow to thrive.

Michelle Budny is a graduate research student at FAU, studying environmental science. For the last year and a half, she’s been collecting data and analyzing Carolina willows -- and taking weekly airboat rides into the marshes of Blue Cypress Conservation Area.

"As these willows move into the sawgrass, they use more water, which means that there's less water available in the ecosystem for other processes," says Budny. 

Credit Jessica Meszaros / WLRN
Michelle Budny is a master's research student at Florida Atlantic University. She proved that the Carolina Willow, an invasive but native Florida plant, could dry up the state’s marshes.

She used a portable photosynthesis analyzer to clamp onto live willow leaves. Budny discovered the willow needs more water for the amount of carbon it gains.

That means it takes a lot of water from the environment. She says this could potentially dry out Florida marshes as the plant continues to grow outward. 

"Especially as climate change progresses, there's expected to be less precipitation in South Florida, so that has implications for water availability," she says. 

Budny is ready to hand off her data to St. Johns River Management District, so they can decide how to deal with their willow invasion.

As for Budny, she’s graduating in May and plans to continue researching Florida’s wetlands. 

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