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Mythical Big Cypress

Big Cypress Watershed
Or is the term "mosaic" a better descriptor?

Animated cross section of the rise and fall of the water table in Big Cypress National Preserve
Swamp water cycle in motion

In the modern era, we’ve come to know the Big Cypress as a watershed. But what if I were to tell you, use of that term for the Big Cypress is as new as the preserve? Yes, that’s right, the day Big Cypress National Preserve was established in 1974, it was dubbed a watershed – it’s own watershed, a watershed separate from the Everglades and the Lake – and has been thought of in that pristine, almost utopian way, ever since. But the truth is the Big Cypress is only a watershed because its original “other sources” of water were drained away, or diverted.

Listen to Audio Introduction

What were those sources? Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades definitely flowed into the swamp. If you don’t believe me, just read the Buckingham Report from 1848. And prior to the destruction of the Ft. Thompson Falls and drainage of the Upper Caloosahatchee Basin (Lake Flirt, Lake Bonnet and Lake Hicpochee), the swamp was fed water through groundwater seeps from the Immokalee Rise.

Before, Current and Future Restored Maps of the Big Cypress Swamp
The rainfed swamp we know today was once fed by upstream water sources

So yes, in a way the Big Cypress we know today is a rainfall-sustained ruins of a pre-drainage cathedral of of headwater flows, now largely collapsed (by drainage). That doesn’t make the swamp any less special. In fact it makes it more interesting than we knew. And it also points to our need to steward water. The sky provides the Big Cypress with a bounty of water. But it needs help, our help, to make sure its clean, connected to its remnant headwaters where possible, and help it spread out.

And the swamp needs fire, too. Every square inch of flora and fauna in the swamp depends on a regular return interval and dosage of flood and fire. Those are the two forces that give the swamp its distinctive mosaic of habitats. The cypress may look “old as the hills” but they are actually holes — although it is incorrect to call it a homogenous swamp.

More correctly stated, it’s a malleable swampy mosaic that’s semi-fixed in time and space. Or as we like to say around here:

So goes flood and fire, so goes the swamp.

How To: Ride the Water Cycle
The right and wrong way

Not to be mistaken …

With a giant bike in the sky.

Photo of bike taken at Oasis

The water cycle is more accurately represented …

By the water wheel below.

It receives water from the sky and sends it onto (and down into) the ground below (i.e. the aquifer).

Retired water wheel

Unlike the retired water wheel above,

The real hydrologic cycle is constantly in motion.

With no hope of retiring anytime soon.

Life on the Tamiami
Why 40 + 8 = 50 when naming Fifty Mile Bend

About 8 miles west of Forty Mile Bend …

Is another curve in the road.

Tamiami Canal reverse flows at Fifty Mile Bend

Technically, doing the math, it should be called 48 Mile Bend.

But we round up in the Big Cypress Swamp.

Thus it is known as Fifty Mile Bend. Turns out it’s also a hydrologic divide, sending water at that point both west and east, and yes I’ve seen it with my own eyes (as documented in the video above). What a kind-hearted canal to feed water in equal doses to the Everglades and Big Cypress.

Next step: Convince the regional water managers to do the same.