Geology of Paynes Prairie

Aerial image of paynes prairie watershed

At Paynes Prairie, geology and water are intimately connected. Picture a giant fracture running through the bedrock of Florida. Water flows across Paynes Prairie along this fracture and into the Floridan Aquifer, an underground river that moves through the limestone underneath the state. Alachua Sink is the name of the “swallow hole” that sucks water into the aquifer. It extends for a half mile along the foot of the bluff on the prairie’s north edge. Alachua Sink includes the largest and deepest sinkholes in the prairie. Some describe it as functioning like the drain in your bathtub.

The Paynes Prairie watershed is twenty miles long and eight miles wide, covering 121,000 acres. The water travels through the watershed and across the prairie to Alachua Sink. At peak flow, over 100 million gallons of water a day enter the underground aquifer through the Sink. In fact, the surface water that you see along the La Chua Trail is the top of the Aquifer - someday, someone is going to drink this water!

Water levels are another way “to see” Paynes Prairie’s geologic connection to the aquifer. When the Aquifer is high, water drains slowly and open water is expansive on the prairie basin. In this lake-like landscape, fish abound, thousands of lotus bloom and trails are likely submerged.

When the Aquifer is low, water drains quickly and the basin is drier. This is a great time to see alligators congregate in the pockets of water that remain. Annual and seasonal water level fluctuations are common – it’s a dynamic landscape!

Paynes Prairie as seen from the US 441 observation boardwalk when water levels are high.
Paynes Prairie as seen from the US 441 observation boardwalk when water levels are low.
Alligators congregate in the pockets of water that remain when water levels are low.

A unique geology is essential to the prairie, making it a significant part of the regional watershed, and helping to provide a vital habitat for the plants and animals that are found here.