Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1983, is the only refuge created specifically for the protection of the threatened Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee. This unique refuge preserves Three Sisters Springs, the last unspoiled and undeveloped spring habitat in Kings Bay. King Spring, one of seven federal manatee sanctuaries set up from November to March, provides critical habitat for the over 600 manatees that migrate to Kings Bay each winter. In addition to the establishment of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, manatees are also protected by the 2012 designation of the entire Kings Bay area as the Kings Bay Manatee Refuge (or Kings Bay Manatee Protection Area). Buzzard, Parker, and Banana islands provide habitat for bald eagles, osprey, wood storks, and many other shore birds
Crystal River NWR will strive to preserve, restore, and enhance the exceptional diversity of native flora and fauna of Kings Bay and the Three Sisters Springs for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.
Crystal River NWR habitat management goals will seek to maintain a healthy refuge environment that will provide opportunities for visitors to enjoy wildlife-dependent uses in a natural setting. Interpreting a unique assemblage of habitats, wildlife and the refuge’s historical heritage, as well as improving facilities that will enhance the visitor’s experience while protecting the ecological integrity of the area.
To meet these challenges, the Service will seek partnerships with other agencies, interest groups, and local communities. These efforts will result in greater protection of wildlife, fish, and plant resources throughout west-central Florida.
1983 - Establishment of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
2010 - Acquisition of the Three Sisters Springs property
2019 - Finalization of the partnership agreement between Crystal River NWR, the City of Crystal River, and the Southwest Florida Water Management District for management, development, and maintenance of the Three Sisters Springs property
Other Facilities in this Complex
Three Sisters Springs Unit
History, Acquisition and Current Partnership
- Citrus County fishermen, as far back as the 1920’s, piloted wooden skiffs up a long and winding creek from Kings Bay to Three Sisters armed with their fishing poles and empty jugs to fill with spring water.
- Three Sisters Springs was documented in a 1944 aerial photography prior to development (see image to right). At that time, the Three Sisters Springs group discharged to Kings Bay through a long (more than 3,200 feet), non-navigable, heavily wooded, shallow, braided and poorly defined spring run (creek)
- A local dive shop offered tours into Three Sisters Springs on glass bottom sightseeing boats in the 1950’s.
- A canal was constructed in the 1960’s to allow for navigable access to Three Sisters Springs.
- Sewer Sam, the first documented, rescued Florida manatee, was rehabilitated at Three Sisters Springs in 1972 by Jacques Cousteau. The story of Sewer Sam can be seen in the documentary, The Forgotten Mermaid.
- Pilings were placed at the entrance to Three Sisters Springs in 1982 to limit vessel traffic; the spring run was also lined with large boulders.
- Three Sisters Springs was a naturally a forested wetland. In the 1970s, most trees were removed, and an 8-acre pit (originally named Lake Linda and now named lake Crystal) was dug. It collapsed into the aquifer at approximately 40 feet deep. The excavated material was used to provide fill for the entire property.
- The Three Sisters Springs property was to be developed with condos and townhouses, and water was to be commercially extracted and bottled from the springs.
- In 2008, The Friends of Crystal River NWR Complex began efforts to save Three Sisters Springs from development. Following a successful partnership consisting of state, federal and local organizations, the Three Sisters Springs property was purchased for 10.5 million: approximately two million less than fair market value.
- Three Sisters Springs is now jointly owned by the city of Crystal River and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD).
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), under a lease agreement with the City of Crystal River, manages Three Sisters Springs as part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
- Three Sisters Springs opened to the public in November 2014 after improvements to the gate and existing limestone road were made.
- The SWFWMD restored some of the original wetlands to filter runoff from US 19. This project began in the fall of 2014 and was finished by 2015.
- The following have already taken place at Three Sisters Springs since the acquisition in 2010:
- Boulder removal along spring run, to provide for manatee access during low tides
- Construction of boardwalk
- Construction of a pavilion
- Exotic vegetation removal
- Improvement of unpaved access road
- Placement of two temporary parking lot
- Planting of native trees around the springs
- Placement of regulation signs
- Public Use Surveys
- Conceptual plan design for facilities
- Open House events including National Wildlife Refuge Day celebration, Manatee Fest and other events hosted by the Friends of Crystal River NWR
- Erosion stabilization at TSS:
- Bathrooms and other facilities: There are $1.2 million available for infrastructure facilities at Three Sisters Springs – to begin in 2014.
- The following future facilities and projects are planned and awaiting funding:
- Bank stabilization project of the canal in front of the Three Sisters Springs Complex
- Building of viewing platforms over Magnolia Springs at the north side of the property
- Creating a pollinator garden to support native species
- Building an ADA compliant fishing pier at Lake Crystal
- Construction of an Environmental Education Facility