Florida’s biggest stream
Hint: It's salty

What’s the biggest stream in south Florida?

Answer: The Gulf Stream.

The Gulf Stream is an awesome force

It flows at the mind dizzying rate of 30,000,000,000 gallons per second. Or in more normal stream units, around 4,000,000,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). If those numbers don’t register in your mind, don’t feel bad – join the club. They are too big to conceptualize as isolated numbers. Instead, consider them relative to south Florida’s biggest flow gate – the S79 W. P. Franklin Dam and Lock along the Caloosahatchee River. It peaked at a weekly flow rate of around 25,000 during the week of Tropical Storm Fay (in 2008), and is currently at just under 2,000 cfs.

That’s where our Lake Okeechobulator comes in handy.

With a few quick clicks of its buttons, it’s telling me that if we were able to catch the entire Gulf Stream by plunking a giant imaginary bucket into the Straights of Florida (from Cuba to the Keys), it would fill up one full Lake Okeechobee volume – 5.5 million acre feet – every minute. That adds up to 1,440 full Lake Okeechobees every day. So next time you’re out on Lake Okeechobee, staring out at water as far as the eye can see — don’t forget it’s a drop in the can for the Gulf Stream, accounting for only 33 seconds worth of water passing through the Florida Straights.


Old and New Everglades
How the past informs the future

This image is oldie …

But a goodie.

Pre and Post Drainage Everglades

I‘d always seen the images of the pre and post drainage Everglades side by side, and with all the looking back in forth it inspired me to superimpose them overtop of each other and toggle them back and forth. In a nutshell, there’s no going back to the pre-drainage. But that doesn’t mean we simply ignore the pre-drainage system. Understanding it helps us frame the possibilities and limitations of modern-day water management and restoration efforts. Also, the new mantra in the Everglades isn’t about looking into the past, but ahead into the future. Increasing attenuated water flows across the landscape is our best bet locally for battling back and keeping a balance with sea level rise.

One big caveat about this animated map: It doesn’t get the Big Cypress right. For one it cuts it in half and two, it doesn’t properly show the flows. Sounds like a new project. Stay tuned!

Watersheds of south Florida

Lesser known sloughs
But just as important as Shark River

The Everglades top flow way?

Answer: Probably Shark River Slough.

The swamp has multiple flow paths

But if you hop the fence (actually it’s a levee) into the Big Cypress Swamp, the sawgrass plain gives way to a labyrinth of cypress strands, open marl prairies and pine island high ground. Major flow ways include Fakahatchee Strand, Mullet Slough, Okaloacoochee Slough, Turner River, Sweetwater Strand, and Gum Slough to name a few. Lostmans Slough is in Big Cypress National Preserve but it’s on the Everglades side of the Pinecrest picket fence. It’s actually not a fence, but discontinuous archipelago of remnant Miami limestone.

The map above isn’t exactly as the ecosystem still flows today, but more a peek back on how it might have worked prior to levees and canals. Did you know Lake Okeechobee use to flow into the modern-day Big Cypress National Preserve. My favorite flow system actually isn’t shown. It’s called Devils Garden, located on the eastern fringe of the Immokalee Rise. Depending on the season, it received flows from the Upper Caloosahatchee to the north, Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades to the east and discharge from the Immokalee Rise to the west and discharged south into Cowbell Strand. Sounds more like an Eden to me.

Swamp Gazetteer
Hydrologist's Handbook

There’s better maps out there …

Or are there?


And more importantly: Can you find them in a pinch? Introducing the Big Cypress Gazetteer. It contains an incomplete compendium of maps that you might find useful for understanding the swamp. The thing about maps, it’s impossible to find a single map that tells you everything you want. In fact, that was the original motivation for why I made the maps to begin with. I could find pieces of information here and there, but there wasn’t a cartographical layout (not even Google Earth) that put everything I needed all on one page. Emphasis on “everything I needed.” While I’m happy to share these maps, they really aren’t intended to be a full-proof Rand McNally guide of the swamp — just something that may be useful. As for the best guide to the swamp, nothing replaces getting out in nature with your own two feet. There’s no map for that.

Bridges of Collier County

Sometimes I think Google Earth makes us lazy.

Instead of true inquiry, we simply zoom in and out.

This map allows you to connect bridge numbers
to the natural flow features that feed them

And yes I know its a powerful tool,

But to really dig in you have to integrate information from other sources.

Read more

The day the swamp “clicked”

Have you ever had to look at something …

For a very long time before it clicked?

Historic map of the three major
watersheds of the Big Cypress Basin,
as defined by Klein (1970).

That’s what happened to me with the above map.

It wasn’t until Jack Meeder clued me in to its tie in to (as Jack calls it) “Immokalee Mountain” (i.e. max elevation 42 ft above sea level) and the Caloosahatchee’s Fort Thomson Falls (no longer in existence), that the pivotal role the Big Cypress Swamp played in the pre-drainage Everglades finally snapped into place.

Ft Thompson Falls were located
about 2 miles east of LaBelle and formed
the headwater source of the Caloosahatchee
River, with a 4-10 ft drop.

Sometimes A-HA Moments take time (and a little help!).

Swamp has size of 51st state

How big is the swamp?

Big Cypress Nat’l Preserve alone is expansive enough to be called a “state.”

Comparable in size, yes, but the swamp has considerably less congestion

By state-like I mean as big as Rhode Island, or in other words 1,214 square miles … or almost. Big Cypress Nat’l Preserve covers some 1,139 square miles.

I call that close enough.