Bobby Angel

Pre-Drainage Song
As sung around the campfire

Bobby Angel brings down the house …

With his sprawling masterpiece on the destruction of the Everglades and the power of dreams to both haunt us and inspire a new way.

Keep listening after the song to hear an interview with the artist

If you’re a history buff …

You’ll rejoice in the many references to the pre-drained Everglades, how it changed over time, and the quest with hydrologic restoration to get it right. As an alternative to listening to the song, you may also be interested in River of Interest (2012) by Matthew C. Godfrey and Theodore Catton, or David McCally’s The Everglades an Environmental History (1999) or Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise (2006). However, if you are in a pinch for time, I recommend this song which was only written after extensive study of the books listed above. All of Bobby Angel’s song are similarly deeply researched as you’ll discover in the post-song interview.

Bobby Angel may not have all the answers …

But boy can he sing a Nature Folk ballad!

Before Canals

Yes, the Big Cypress is its own watershed …

And it gets most of its water straight from the sky.

As presented at the Big Cypress Symposium

But that doesn’t mean …

It hasn’t changed over the decades.

In fact, by the time the Big Cypress was saved from development – and designated as natural refuges, parks and preserves – a vast network of canals and levees had already been put in place.

Animation of how drainage altered the watershed

The result?

For one, the watershed shrunk.

The headwater delivery system that used to reach high up into the Caloosahatchee and Lake Okeechobee is now diverted to the coasts. Meanwhile, the water that used to flow into Big Cypress from the Everglades has been cut off, or even reversed.

Major drainage preceded conservation of The Big Cypress

We’re not saying we don’t love being a watershed.

It’s the best of all possible foundations to build on. The next step is doing hydrologic restoration projects great and small to get the water right.

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Before lines
The water didn't change, the boundary did

Today, we often default to political lines …

When thinking about geography, and hydrology, too.

Historic Phytogeography of South Florida with Present Day SFWMD Features, 2019, by Lexie Hoffart & Nichole Miller, Geographers, SFMWD. View a full scale version of the map here. Find out more about how the map was made here.

But we all know water has a mind of its own.

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Glades-fed swamp
Photo tour of the 19-mile long L-28 levee

Here’s a quick tour of the L-28 …

Back from August of 2017.

(1) S-12A looking southeast
Mile 0
(2) S-343B looking southwest
(That’s the Tamiami Trail to the left)
Mile 1
(3) S-343A looking West
Mile 2
(4) First of four temporary
pumps, looking North
Mile 4
(5) Second of four temporary 
pumps, looking North
Mile 4
(6-8) Third and fourth of four temporary pumps
and the S-344, looking North
Mile 12
(6-8) Same spot as above
looking Southwest
Mile 12
(9) First of three breaks in the tieback
looking Northwest (the water in the gaps
flows from right left)
Mile 17
(10) Middle of three breaks 
in tieback, looking Northwest
Mile 17
(11) Third of three breaks 
in tieback, looking Northwest
Mile 18
(12) Northern terminus of L-28
Tieback, looking Northwest
Mile 19

By my count there were twelve locations that water from the righthand side of the levee (i.e. WCA3A East) was flowing across into the Big Cypress side (i.e. left) of the L-28 divide.

The bigger question is this:

Is the L-28 the true physiographic boundary between the Big Cypress and Everglades?

After careful review, my opinion is the answer is no.

River-fed Swamp?

Did the Caloosahatchee …

Once feed the swamp?

The dredging of the Caloosahatchee River, and specifically blowing up of Ft. Thompson Falls in the 1880s, is often invoked as the starting point of drainage of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

The Caloosahatchee Watershed is bigger than WCA1 and WCA2 combined

In the years and decades that followed, the Caloosahatchee would go on to become the primary outlet for controlling Lake stage, a status it retains to this day. In many ways it functions as spillway for the greater Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades (KOE) flow way, and in particular for the Lake.

How he Caloosahatchee and Big Cypress were connected … once upon a time

Not a single act, direct dredging of the river – including digging a straight channel through its tailwater oxbows, blowing up the Ft. Thompson Falls, connecting it to the Lake, and deepening the channel for nautical purposes throughout – and construction of a vast network of tributary canals that drained into it (from the north and south) occurred over a span of decades.  The Caloosahatchee River was a rare case where nautical and drainage interests initially fought against each other but ultimately both won. 

The original Caloosahatchee was more reminiscent of a stream in terms of its meanders and relatively shallow depth.   The river was sinuous to the point of being unnavigable, requiring larger vessels to “warp-around” the curves, requiring running their bow on the shore and using a rope to swing the boat in the right direction (Antoni et al, 2002).  Moreover, the stream stopped short of the Lake, about halfway to be exact, where the smaller (and now dried up) Lake Flirt basin served as its headwater source.

Artistic representation of the relationship between Lake O, the Caloosahatchee, the Immokalee Rise and the Big Cypress Swamp prior to drainage

As a result,

  • Caloosahatchee is now a channelized spillway, not a natural river
  • Historic Lake Flirt and Lake Bonnet no longer exist,
  • Modern-day water levels north of Ft Thompson falls are upwards of 10-15 lower than their pre-drainage condition.

The Caloosahatchee doesn’t just drain Lake O, it’s also the primary getaway canal for draining lands to the north and south of the river.  This drainage capacity is enhanced by a series of tributary canals along the modern-day river’s entire length.

Water elevation along the Caloosahatchee, prior to drainage (blue) and today (red)

The result?

  • Not all the water that discharges through the S-79 is from Lake Okeechobee.  Approximately half comes from the Caloosahatchee watershed and those tributary canals. 
  • The water table under the Immokalee Rise dropped below the regional surface water table.
  • Drainage of the Caloosahatchee caused the headwaters of Okaloacoochee Slough to reverse course.  At some point Big Cypress Swamp’s pre-drainage watershed now flow north into the Caloosahatchee River, both groundwater (unseen) and surface water as seen at Okaloacoochee Slough.


Today we think of Lake Okeechobee feeding flows into the Caloosahatchee. But prior to drainage, (1) there was no connection from the Lake and (2) the headwaters of the Caloosahatchee actually helped feed water south into the Big Cypress Swamp.

Pre-drainage drop?

Everyone knows …

The Caloosahatchee River didn’t originally connect to the Lake.

Comparison of water stage along the Caloosahatchee, prior to drainage (blue) and today (red)

But did you know the river doesn’t just drain the Lake?

The Caloosahatchee also drains its own watershed.

As a result, near LaBelle river stage is 10-15 feet lower than it once was.

Paradigm shift, swamp-style

The Big Cypress has long been touted as a “rain driven” watershed.

While that may sounds Utopian at first …

Maybe it has errantly led us down the wrong path.

Perhaps a better way to think of the Big Cypress conservation lands are as derelict ruins of a hydrologic architecture that long since collapsed and that once reached well up towards the Caloosahatchee (as shown on the animated diagram above.)

I‘m not saying we’ll ever get all that back …

But finding ways to connect the swamp to its headwaters are vital to the success of our conservation lands and our community and its water management efforts at large.

“Leaky dam” theory

The Immokalee Rise is often viewed as the northern “terrestrial” bounds of the swamp.

But “hydrologically” could it have been its source?

The myth of a rain-driven swamp falls apart
when you consider its connection to a higher Lake
Okeechobee, the flooded Lake Flirt floodplain,
Ft. Thompson falls and the underlying karst 
and porous sands of the Immokalee Rise,
prior to drainage of course

Imagine if you would:

  • A higher pre-drainage Lake Okeechobee, 23 feet above sea level (asl).
  • A fully intact Ft Thomson Falls that pooled water in the Lake Flirt floodplain, 20 ft asl
  • Groundwater flowing laterally through the Immokalee Rise’s underlying karst 
  • Rainwater infiltrating down into the porous sands of the Immokalee Rise  

Under that scenario, Immokalee Mountain wasn’t a dam at all …

But the underground spigot that supercharged the headwaters of the swamp.

Special thanks to hydrogeologist and swamp emeritus Jack Meeder on this post!