Tales of the Water Cycle

Sometimes a story has no other purpose than its on your mind and reader or listener be willing, here’s how it sort of goes. By the end you usually discover a kernel of truth. | Water Writings | Easy Trivia | Watersh-editorials | Dictionary | Bookshelf | aquatic-quandaries | Swamp rules | Tales of the water cycle | Ghosts of watersheds past | Watershed myths | Before and after | Speaking Water | Measuring Water | Fireside Water


Foggy Glare
A thousand points of glare

There’s no bigger challenge of adulthood …

Than the “day in and the day out.”

East bound into the sun

Living in Naples Florida and driving into the Big Cypress Swamp everyday, that means a lot of fog and a lot of glare. I would mention the traffic in town, but most of my commute is on the sparsely traveled Tamiami Trail. As much as I enjoy the commute, at times I wonder if I’d do better on the night shift. That way, I’d have the sun behind my back on they way in (during he late afternoon) and on my return drive back in time I’d have the morning sun shining towards the west in my rear view. Again, that’s a minor complaint. The morning fog and glare are just part of the Big Cypress charm.

Napkin Sketches
Art of drawing State Road 29

When all else fails …

Grab a napkin and sketch it out.

Sketch of the Big Water Fix for SR29

The reason? Nobody reads any more. And if they’ve heard it once they’ve heard it a thousand times. And more than likely they’ve seen the boring satellite imagery more than once. But your sketch? I guarantee they’ve never see it before, and in all likelihood will give it a second look. Other advantages of hand-drawn sketches? It forces you to think things through, and also gives you the advantage of not having to draw to scale, and yes — if you’re really creative — you can even hide some buried treasure in there, too.

The purpose of this map is to show the major features of the Big Solution for fixing the Barron River Canal. In a nutshell, and if I’ve heard this once I’ve heard it a thousand times (mostly me saying it): “The only solution is the big solution, but it works for everyone.” And by everyone, I mean upstream Immokalee and the surrounding agricultural lands and also the downstream public lands including Big Cypress National Preserve, the Panther Refuge, Fakahatchee and Everglades National Park. I would write more, but I can see I don’t want to bore you.

Or in other words, just look at the sketch!

animation 101

Puddle paradise
The case for walking through them

Usually, if you can …

You walk around a puddle.

Puddles are trending (according to this hydrologist)

Not in the Big Cypress Swamp down in south Florida. The reason? The puddles are too big to avoid. As for waders, they don’t work. I remember one trip when I decided to where them. My pants became soaking wet rom sweat to the point that I regretted putting them on at all. The truth is — socks eventually dry, and boots do, too. More about my field boots: They don’t last long. Water is the enemy to leather my local cobbler has told me. As if I had a choice. The only way to get from Point A to Point B in the swamp is to embrace the puddle and go straight in. Socks never feel good getting wet at first. The good news once they get wet a who new world opens up. Walking through a puddle in the Big Cypress is one of the great (if also misunderstood) joys of life.

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.

Full story …
Or partial keyhole view?

The calendar chart (top) is color coordinated with the diagram (bottom)

The beauty of this chart is it allows us to see the full water history of Big Cypress National Preserve. The caveat is that it’s only a single gage. And this may even be a bigger one: It doesn’t tell us how water changed in the run up to the preserve being formed, and especially after the Tamiami Trail in the 1930. The trail not only paved the way for connecting the two coasts, it also became the de facto backbone for draining the swamp. Fifty years later the Preserve was established, and that’s when our hydrologic record keeping begins, too.

The biggest trend in my eye from the graph above is the longer summer wet seasons. That’s not because we’re getting more rain, but because we’re doing a better job of spreading the water out. The biggest shift for the Preserve occurred in the early 1990s after Alligator Alley and Turner River Road were replumbed to divert less water. This summer’s taken a little longer to start up, in part thanks to a deeper than usual spring drought. But the bigger trend is that it’s wetter now than when the Preserve was established (in 1974) but not as wet as before the Tamiami Trail went in.

So it’s a partial story, but pretty interesting (and revealing).

Data is good.