Category Archives: Everglades

Everglades 2021-Second largest nesting event since pre-drainage period in the 1940s

Words of Dr Mark Cook, Wildlife Ecologist | Restoration Scientist | Wildlife & Scientific Photographer | Public Speaker | Science Communicator/SFWMD

“As the rainy season finally kicks in after a late start, and the wading bird nesting now draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on a very successful nesting season. Final nest numbers and fledging rates are yet to be calculated but in general we can say this was the second largest nesting event (over 80k nests!) since the pre-drainage period in the 1940s, and very likely the most successful year in terms of the number of young birds produced! The photo here shows just one of the large flocks of young wood storks (note the yellow beaks not the black beaks of the adults) that recently fledged and are now recruited into the population. The late start of the wet season was certainly helpful because it allowed the vast majority of late hatching birds to fledge before the rains started and lost their food supply. It also extended the period of excellent foraging habitat which increases the probability of survival for these young, naive birds. It’s likely that all wading bird species nesting in the Everglades experienced a significant boost to their populations this year.” –Dr Mark Cook, 6-24-21, Facebook

Today I share photos of a helicopter tour taken June 18, 2021 under the direction of South Water Management Districts‘ Dr Mark Cook. Twenty-seven year veteran, JK Wells served as pilot, and Mr Sean Scully, Bureau Chief, Applied Science -Kissimmee River was a guest -just like me.

JK flew us “everywhere. This post will focus on Water Conservation Areas 1, 2, and 3. (WCA) and Everglades National Park. This flight was taken so that Dr Cook could document one of his final bird counts for the year. Most juvenile birds had fledged their nests. This is fantastic news. So we did not see the “super colonies,” some with up to thirty thousand birds, that were present just a few weeks ago -but we did see fledgling birds and parents and the Everglades landscape itself.  Spectacular!  I want to share these photos today.

~And kudos to the birds of 2021! So happy you had a great year! Thank you Dr Cook for letting me tag along!

-Pilot JK Wells, Mr Sean Sculley, JTL, and Dr Mark CookAt 7:00 am the machine rose like a dragonfly and West Palm Beach came into view. Within a short time we were over Water Conservation Area 1, also known as “Aurthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.” This area is famous for its tree islands. -West Palm Beach below1. Water Conservation Area 1

-Tree island with remaining wading bird colony-Amazing tree islands in WCA1. “Tree islands are important centers of biodiversity in the Florida Everglades; they have two to three times the plant and animal diversity of the surrounding wetlands. This high diversity is due primarily to their higher elevation relative to the adjacent wetlands. In the natural Everglades system, water levels fluctuated seasonally with rainfall, and tree islands were the only sites that escaped flooding during the wet season. These seasonally dry sites provided refugia and nesting sites for animals and allowed tree and shrub communities to flourish.“USGS -Another view of this remarkable habitat! -Large tree island amongst smaller ones. The difference has to do with soil type and topography. Aren’t they spectacular? Biodiversity reigns here. -Note dead Lygodium or Old World Climbing Fern below that has been treated, now dead hanging in tree islands.Below: “Loxahatchee Impoundment Landscape Assessment,” LILA, -“human-made tree islands.” This research will eventually help recreate the many areas that have lost their tree islands. 2. Water Conservation Area 2

WCA 2 has experienced high phosphors and nitrogen levels going back to the 1960s. We could see the impaired landscape as we entered WCA2. The vegetation really started to change. The tree islands were no longer visible as the nutrient pollution has altered the flora and fauna. This is what happens when loads of phosphorus and nitrogen from agriculture and developed areas flows through pristine areas. They are lost, but there is hope…

-Leaving Water Conservation Area 1, going over the Hillsboro Canal into Water Conservation Area 2. Note vegetation changes compared to WCA1. -Hillsboro Canal-Note lack of tree islands. The vegetation has gotten so thick and tight Mark Cook says even an alligator cannot push though. There are many plants but mostly cattail, sawgrass, and willow. Dr Cook explained a program entitled “Cattail Habitat Improvement Project” or CHIP.

He showed us -large rectangles-cut into the thick vegetation. This was done a an experiment and is showing to be quite successful. Mark said just a few weeks prior, the birds were “going crazy” feeding here. These cuts-outs become “pools of life!” You can see them below.

-Thick vegetation WCA2 -CHIP- the wildlife and birds do return to these areas were vegetation has been cut out and improved. This gives hope for the future of WCA 2. 3. Water Conservation Area 3

Next we crossed the North New River Canal entering gigantic Water Conservation Area 3.

Here the lands are also impaired due to pollution but not as much as Water Conservation Area 2. One can still view here the Ridge and Slough that made up just about all south of the sawgrass prairie that today is the Everglades Agricultural Area.

-Note the small white specks – birds on giant tree island-A side view-Further west in WCA 3 – very clear Ridge and Slough pattern -Further Southwest above the Tamiami Trail – cypress domes and cypress forest. So pretty! -Juvenile birds feeding away from their nests

4. Everglades National Park – below the Tamaimi Trail. Dr Cook said the green in the water is water lettuce.

-This handout from earlier in the year shows the areas of the greatest bird nesting (red ovals and stars). Look at the numbers!

Final words of Dr Mark Cook

“This morning I completed my last survey of the breeding season and I’m excited to report that pretty much every nest in the Everglades (all 80k of them) has now fledged. Despite the start of the rains and the increased water levels there are still thousands of foraging birds in the freshwater marshes and along the coast meaning that the Everglades is still affording the young birds plenty of foraging opportunities which is critical at this early stage of life. The photo is part of a large flock of ibis in the western marl prairies of #evergladesnationalpark -“

-Dr Mark Cook, Facebook, 6-25-21

Thank you for JK for a very smooth flight!

Videos

  1. WCA 1-tree islands
  2. WCA 2-impaired Everglades
  3. Super colony in WCA3
  4. Cypress domes southwest WCA 3 in slow motion

“When Flows Return to the River of Grass” -Dr Mark Ian Cook

Dr Mark Ian Cook is smiling. And he should be. It is looking like the the birds and wildlife of the Everglades may end up having one of the best years ever! Dr Cook is the Scientific Section Lead of the Systemwide Everglades Group for the South Florida Water Management District. He received his B.S. at Bangor University; his M.S. at the University of Durham; his Ph.D at the University of Glasgow; completed Post Doc work at UC Berkley;  then in 2004 was hired SFWMD Lead Scientist rising to his position today. Cook’s seventeen years of SFWMD scientific photography and publication has required him to take hundreds of helicopter flights throughout the greater Everglades-and literally hundreds of thousands of aerial photographs (data). Dr Cook has seen it all. He was there last year when the rains came early and thousands of wood storks and other wading birds watched their almost fully fledged chicks starve. But this year, this year is different! This year, more chicks may fledge than Mark has ever witnessed…

Before I wrote this post we spoke by phone. “Hello Dr Cook,” I said. “Please call me Mark,” he replied. “We just landed in Homestead to fuel up.” I could hear the helicopter blades swishing.

“How are the birds? Are they still doing well? “ I asked, speaking very loudly.

“They are phenomenal! They are in heaven!” He replied in a wonderful English accent.

“That’s great!” I said.“Tell them hello!” I heard him laughing.

Thank you to the Arts Council of Martin County for featuring Dr Cook’s 2021 Virtual Gallery, “When Flows Return to the River of Grass.” I invite you to partake in this wonderful year for our Everglades wildlife. Take a look at what happens “When Flows Return to the River of Grass.”

(Click on highlighted link above to walk through virtual galley)

Roseate Spoonbills feeding at sunset. Dr Mark Ian Cook.
A Great Egret on its way to build a nest. Photograph Dr Mark Ian Cook

*You can also learn and enjoy from Dr Cook’s work on Facebook.

Jumping Around the Frog Pond

Today we will be jumping around the Frog Pond

On April 29, 2021, I took a tour, with SFWMD staff, led by LeRoy Rodgers, Section Leader, Vegetative Management, 21 years; Christen Mason, Invasive Species Biologist, 7 years; and Brenda Mills, Principal Project Manger, Everglades Restoration, 23 years. Serious experience! The goal was to tour and learn about Frog Pond restoration, the C-111 project sites, and the 8.5 Square Mile Area. So what is the Frog Pond anyway? There’s no easy explanation, but I’ll try. The Frog Pond can best described as the “end of the road or the beginning of the road,” Ingram Highway that is. The end of the road for Florida City and the beginning of the road for Everglades National Park. Looking at the map provided by the SFWMD, one can see that the Frog Pond is the long yellow rectangle below; pink contains the C-111 South Dade Project of which Frog Pond is part; and the blue section at the top is the 8.5 Square Mile Area.So before we start jumping around…

Ecologically, this area is part of the Everglades Keys, the marl transverse glades, (where water once seeped through from the River of Grass) south of Miami.

-Landscapes and Hydrology of the Predrainage Everglades, page 49, 2011, McVoy.So how about today?

First, we must recognize the hard work of the public, the U.S. Department of the Interior,  the USACOE, the National Park system, and others. In the 1980s and 1990 all fought and achieved the Everglades  National  Park  Protection  and  Expansion  Act with the goal of protecting the eastern agriculture areas from flooding, but achieving more water into Everglades Nation Park. No easy task!

“To quote the book, page 257, River of Interests: “The  Interior  Department  and  the  National Park System agreed  that  acquisition  of Frog Pond was essential, claiming that it would restore freshwater to Florida Bay.” And as all has evolved, this is indeed being accomplished. Here is an excellent 2021 explanation from  SFWMD Chief District Engineer and Assistant Executive Director, John Mitnick.

“The Frog Pond Detention Area is a project in South Dade along the eastern side of ENP, and just southeast of the S-332D Detention Area.  It is part of the C-111 Spreader Canal CERP project.  Originally it was a detention area, meaning water was pumped into it and detained before it would evaporate or seep out into the groundwater table.  The purpose being to create a hydraulic ridge in the groundwater table (raise the groundwater elevation) to prevent groundwater and surface water from seeping out of ENP to the east.  Around 2016 the District undertook a project called the Florida Bay Project where we modified the detention areas to allow surface water to overland flow out of the detention cells into the headwaters of Taylor Slough after water had passed through the detention cells. This way it was a more direct hydration of the Taylor Slough.  Since it was completed, the project has been very effective at providing additional water to Taylor Slough.”

In its days as agriculture fields, the Frog Pond’s marl and limestone was mechanically ground up to create soil for crops. Though helpful for growing a menagerie of delicious things, this practice was very destructive to the ecology of the already drained lands.

Today the SFWMD has the lead on improving these lands. Christen Mason, Invasive Species Biologist and LeRoy Rodgers Section Leader, Vegetative Management, were proud to show me their restoration work.

The photo below is an excellent example comparing the invasive Napier Grass, on the right, which had totally taken over this area, and the restored rocky marl lands to the left-that have been “restored.”

Napier Grass is also called Elephant Grass and is a wicked invasive and very difficult to remove. Another invasive species, Burmese Pythons, are known to hide in it.

I.

-Left restored. Right full of invasive Napier GrassSo we can see that what was once a monoculture of invasive African Napier Grass is now a combination of native grasses and shrubs. A place for native birds and wildlife. This has taken decades. In some areas, pine trees were planted. Their pert green shoots explode against a blue sky. I hear chirps and singing insects everywhere! I keep looking for a frog, but don’t hear any.

-Christen Mason shows how the rock was ground up for soil-Native grasses and flowers have returned-LeRoy Rodgers holds a wildflower, and beautiful red bug -Pretty! Lots of butterflies!  -Gymnosperma glutinosum, Michelle’s favorite!-Calopogon tuberosus-a young slash pine reaching for the sky!-wild porter weed-a future forest-Beautiful native grasses and flowers-wild milkweed?-a cool water filled solution hole keeps life in dry times-note hammock in background. Lucky Hammock is most famous and a magnet for birds and bird watchers.-Christen poses for the camera. Surrounded by her creations!

II.

Next we drove north and hopped into a hammock. Frog Pond has famous hammocks especially in the west where lands were less disturbed. As we walked the rocky decline from the road, staff asked me if I was allergic to poison-wood or afraid of rattlesnakes. “Neither.” I replied. Proud my parents raised me like they did. Setting up my chair confidently, I took bite of my sandwich in the cool shade.

III.

The day was getting hot and we had to drive back to West Palm Beach, so next we jumped right along to the pump station!

Below is Structure-176, not too far north of the Frog Pond. This station pumps water that wants to go through those old marl transverse glades back into structures of the pink area creating  the hydraulic ridge Mr Mitnick wrote about. This ridge keeps water inside Everglades National Park- upper ground and surface water.

-S-176 -Water is sent back over the lands through the pump station. There are many in area!   Note the soil color and the solution holes!

We jumped back into the truck, and just when when I thought my trip couldn’t get any better,  the most wonderful thing occurred. As we approached I saw all these colored spots in the distance. I strained my eyes.

“Oh my gosh!”  I yelled.

Hundreds of wading birds had gathered. Wood storks, ibis, white egrets, blue herons, roseate spoon bills, and many others feasted, crammed together, on collections of fish and crustaceans.

I silently slid out of the truck, watching and trying not to disturb them. But as the trucks went past the birds lifted into the sky, squawking and flapping, then circling right back to their watery dinner table! I was in awe. “This is what it is all about,” I thought to myself. Like a description of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a sea of birds rose from the Everglades and blocked out the sun. My eyes filled with tears… My hope renewed for our wildlife, our lands, and our waters.

-Birds fly!AWSOME BIRD VIDEO!

 

I wiped the tears from my eyes. Staff was moved as well. We knew we had just witnessed the best of Everglades restoration. It is working.

For the next leg, I drove with Brenda Mills, Principle Project Manager, Everglades Restoration. I learned she was not only an accomplished engineer but also an avid birdwatcher and had even chaired her local chapter of the Native Plant Society!

As we got out of the trucks for our final look around, I was told we were standing in the at controversial 8.5 Square Mile Area. Lands before me had been scraped and restored, piles of earth rose to the horizon. Behind me, tall Royal Palms blew in the wind. I could see an orange painted house through the Napier Grass, Australian Pines, and animals roaming.

The wind blew, the dust rose. “It will start raining soon.” Brenda said. “This landscape will look totally different then, you should come back.”

“Will do,” I said. “I want to see the waters tumbling into Taylor Slough.”  We laughed knowing this area can go from dessert like to Colorado River within hours. I finally knew something about the Frog Pond; I had seen and learned so much. I wished I could stay longer at this amazing place. We all looked at each other, smiling. I kept listening -just hoping that before I left, I would hear one frog chirping. I thought I did, but it must have been a goat. What a day at the Frog Pond!

-SFWMD’s Christen, Rory, and Barbara are doing great work! Thanks for the tour! -Invasive Nadier Grass and Australian Pines in the 8.5 Square Mile Area-An area adjadcent to the 8.5 Square Mile Area that is is slowing being restored. It was once entirely full of Napier Grass. The birds and animals are coming back. -one last photo before we drive home 🙂

 

 

 

 

“Eye on the Horizon,” Picayune Strand

Picayune Stand’s story is the story of Florida at its very worst, and at its very best.

In the 1940s and 50s, this 74,000 acres was logged of its giant cypress; in the 1960s, Gulf American Land Corporation “dynamited” canals, and roads were built for “Golden Gate Estates,” a Florida real estate scheme that never materialized. Gulf American sold plenty of swamp land, finally going bankrupt. This most beautiful of places was left  broken and ravaged. Times changed. The public fought for these lands, and in 2000, Picayune Strand became elevated as the first project of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP. It is almost done…

On April 29, I visited this CERP project held and managed as Picayune Strand State Forest. Its stakeholders include the Florida Forest Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, South Florida Water Management District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Wildlife Commission, and Collier County. It was an inspiring field trip that I will share with you today.

8:00 am

SFWMD Lead Project manager, Joanna Weaver, and I drove for two hours to arrive at our destination in Collier County. Around a picnic table, we met ecologist, Mike Duever; Florida Forest Service biologist, Mike Knight; and Florida Forest Service fire expert, Sean Allen. As we all stood or sat around the table six feet apart, Mr Duever, thoughtfully gave his presentation. I listened intently. I think at first, he may have seen me a “lady from the city,” but I quickly won him over with my knowledge and love of plants and animals. After an excellent hour of intense slides and discussion, we paired off in trucks to take a tour. I was partnered with Mr Duever.-There is north Golden Gate Estates and south Golden Gate Estates. Picayune Strand State Forest is “south Golden Gate Estates” -south of I-75 (Alligator Alley).  North Golden Gate Estates (north of I-75)  is a neighborhood. On the map below, you can see the outlines of the roads now labeled as Picayune Strand State Forest south of I-75. The roads you see north of I-75 comprise the neighborhood of north Golden Gate Estates. The north was developed; the south became Picayune Stand State Forest. -Mr Duever’s handout demonstrates what was on the lands and is now removed, or in the process thereof.  First, logging trams in red; Second, canals in blue; and roads in grey. Mind you the property is 74,000 acres! -This is the back page of Mr Duever’s handout. Blue boxes equal the year/s canals were filled and thus the number of growing seasons for recovering vegetation and trees.  Yellow boxes equal the year/s roads were removed thus also the number of growing seasons. Some areas have had more time to heal than others. -In this handout, note three red squares at the top of the image. These red squares represent the three pump stations that are/will create sheet flow, restoring the hydrology and creating healthy habitat. Miller Pump Station, (far left), must meet flood protection standards for Lipman Farms on the east. This is being addressed now. Lipman Farms granted an easement for the building a protection levee. The entire project must not jeopardize flood protection for northern Gold Gate Estates, thus the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers portion of the CERP project, the gigantic pumps! -Below: Sean Allen of the Florida Forest Service loves his job. “Have you ever seen a panther?” I asked.” Absolutely!” He replies, looking in every direction. Picayune Strand is Panther Mitigation habitat for the state of Florida. This is panther country! 

I was very lucky to be paired up with Mike Duever. He has devoted his life to the restoration of these lands working first with National Audubon, then a long career with the SFWMD. He now works as a consultant for the SFWMD because no one knows the project like he does.

As he calmly took me over the bumpy roads, all the years, all of the ups and downs, all of the successes, all of the disappointments since 2000, I asked: “Are you ever upset that Picayune is not finished yet?”

“Jacqui,” he replied, looking at me with steel violet eyes, “restoration is full of “surprises.” What’s important is to do it the right way.” His glance veered off to the horizon.

By the end of the day, I felt I’d met John Muir himself.

We drove and drove. There were times it was just quiet.

I saw a giant eagle’s nest, deer, blue herons, alligators and beautiful wildflowers. We drove, got out, got in. There were miles of  filled-in canals and roads made one with the earth around them. The forest retuning…

Things weren’t perfect. Mr Duever spoke of an invasion of sable palms and the forestry service explained how the palms act as a middle story between the lower and upper stories, something these lands never had, sometimes promoting out of control wildfires that kill everything.

So much had been accomplished. So much was left to do…

It was complicated. Restoration is complicated. But like Mike Duever taught me that day, it is not about getting rattled by the “surprises,” it’s about the long view. It is about the horizon.

One day, not too far away, all of the giant pumps, not just two, will spread out the “flood waters” creating a sheet flow across the lands during the wet season. All of the trams, and roads will have been removed and the canals will all have been filled, leaving little pools for life to gather. The groundwater will synchronize; the cypress will come in where now willow stands. The wading birds will have thousands of areas to nurture their young. The panther will roam looking for deer and hog and the cry of eagle will echo through the cypress strands.

It will happen. Don’t look down. -Horizon.

-Mike Duever -Too many sable palms endanger the pines and cypress when fire strikes. Many must be removed.-Mr Duever holds a wildflower, Pink-Sabitia -Filled in canal -Removed roadbed. In time, vegetation will grow in.-Some areas of canals are left for water -Wildflowers and uplands-a giant blue bee! -Joanna assesses progress and things yet to come… -The history of Florida is written in these rocks piled high along the canals.-Mike Duever explains that this area was the greatest of the ancient cypress swamp. The willow he says is a precursor for its return. -A young cypress-A pond/canal adjacent to the former cypress swamp expands and contracts with the seasons. It is filled with fishes and gators. Look a snail! Life is retuning…

4:00 pm

-Final visit, the pump stations. Ominous! These things are huge and impressively spotless.

We meet Charles Hendrickson, a wildlife-loving engineer who works for the SFWMD. “I love the nature here. It’s getting to be more and more.” I count 12 alligators near the intake canal and six standing wading birds. He tells me he once saw flamingos! Next, taking his phone out of his pocket, Charles shows me a photograph of hundreds of white pelicans that visited the Merrit Pump Station just days days before. Incredible! As I wave goodbye, I notice Charles looking beyond.

Eye on the horizon…

Update: Picayune Strand/Audubon

 

A Captains’ Introduction to the Shark River!

-Captain Chris Wittman & Captain Daniel Andrews of Captains for Clean Water w/JTL & Ed. Shark River to Shark River Slough transition zone adventure, 3-24-21. Photo Noah Miller.I have had this fascination with finding the Shark River. Maybe it’s the visual; maybe it’s the promise of more water flowing south; maybe it’s because I keep having a hard time finding it…

Twice I had tried. Once, on a boat trip from Flamingo and another flying over with my husband. In both cases, really, the river eluded me. “How can something so big, be so hard to find?” I thought to myself. Well, some of that may be related to the complex changes humankind has made to the Everglades system. It took a day led by Chris Whitman and Daniel Andrews of Captains for Clean Water to meet this elusive river “face to face,” and even begin to understand it.

Before I share the story, I am taking my favorite book off the shelf: Landscapes and Hydrology of the Predrainage Everglades. These images, on pages 46 and 47, compare the hydrology of the Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee from 1850 to today. Even without clicking to study the image, one can see the changes. The Shark River, near the bottom of the system, receives considerably less water today than in its past. The River of Grass south of Lake Okeechobee, which includes Shark River Slough, has been blocked by roads, cut by canals, amputated in the north by the Everglades Agricultural Area, and pushed west from encroaching eastern development.  A modern picture from the National Park System reveals what remains today inside of Everglades National Park and shows the connection of the Shark River to Shark River Slough. My goal was to meet this river and to do so my husband, Ed, and I met the Captains in Flamingo at Flamingo Marina. We were to cross through Whitewater Bay, then enter the “Little Shark River” and next, come face to face with the Shark River itself!

Ed and my morning began at 3:00am. I don’t believe I have ever gotten up this early. The alarm rang and Ed excitedly said: “Time to get up! ” 

“Already?” I replied, stuffing my head under the pillow.

After getting ready, we jumped in the car driving south from Stuart in total darkness to Homestead and entered Everglades National Park. We were to meet the Captains at 8:00am. We were on time, but Ed likes being early.

Slow down Ed! You might hit a panther! I exclaimed.

“I’m following the speed limit Jacqui.” Ed replied. “Go back to sleep.”

The sun was coming up and a menagerie of wading birds gracefully glided overhead. The sun shone through their feathers in hues of oranges and pinks. “This is beautiful.” I said, starting to wake up.

“You should try getting up early more often-we could go fishing together.”  Ed joked.

I rolled my eyes, “I would only get up this early to meet the Shark River, not to catch fishes!”  We laughed.

We saw the sign for Flamingo. We had arrived.

The Captains were waiting; boat already in the water. After quick “hellos,” we waved goodbye to a sleeping crocodile and headed up the Buttonwood Canal to Whitewater Bay. It was so exciting! Finally, I thought, I will indeed meet the Shark River!

It was chilly but no wind. The water was like glass. There was no one else.

-Captain Daniel Andrews and Noah Miller in the Buttonwood Canal leading into Coot Bay.-JTL and Captain Chris Wittman.-What a cool decking! “Send the water south!”-Ed smiles for the camera.Suddenly we stopped.

“Is this Whitewater Bay?” I asked.

Chris nodded his head up and down and climbed above the engine. I noticed he was wearing no shoes, just socks.

“What’s he doing?” I whispered to Ed.

“He’s sighting tarpon. Shhh.”Suddenly I saw a tremendous splash in the distance! A rolling silver monster of a fish. It was spectacular! Never in my lifetime had I seen a jumping “silver king.”

I watched. I listened. It was magical. And like the Shark River, the tarpon stayed just out of reach, remaining a mystery….

We continued on..

We traveled quite a long way, many miles, first hitting the Little Shark River and then the Shark River itself. Some maps like the one below show it all as the Shark River.

“Chris looked at me through reflective glasses. He smiled. “Here you go Jacqui, this is it. The Shark River.”

“Oh my Gosh finally! I exclaimed standing up.“Hello Shark River! I dragged my fingers in the clear, brownish water smiling from ear to ear.

It felt like we were in Africa or some far away land. The Captains were taking us deep into the northern reaches of Otter Creek and  Rookery Branch  as displayed on page 109 of The Everglades Handbook, another excellent publication. Chris said, “Not only are you going to meet the Shark River, we are going to take you to were its connection meets Shark River Slough.” When we arrived at the end of the branch, the waterway got thinner and thinner, the plants began to change. We stopped when we could go no further. Captain Daniel explained that we were in the “transition zone.” Shark River Slough was just north of us, on the other side, where the vegetation would become more marshy. Fresh water flowed through here. I could see coco-plum, like in my yard,  growing right next to mangroves. The vegetation was mixed and different. Daniel discussed the history and how the mangroves have grown much further north since around 1920 because of the lack of fresh water. I looked down. It was very shallow. I could see limestone, marl or some type of rock. What looked like peat and leaves lie on top. The water was clear. Fishes were darting about. I could see the water slowly flowing…

We were at the interface, the meeting place of river and slough. We talked about Everglades restoration for a long time noting that the water now wasted to tide and destroying the Northern Estuaries from Lake Okeechobee once flowed massively south through this area into Florida Bay. We talked about the hyper-salinity and seagrass die-offs in Florida Bay due to the lack of fresh water. Yes, recently, and in 2015, starting in the 1980s. What a conundrum. We must continue to work to send more water south!

-Captain Chris teaches us about the transition zone.-Transition zone between river forks and Shark River Slough. Blue dot is location of the boat. Line above is Tamiami Trail east of Miami. Before heading home, the Captains took us in the opposite direction to see Ponce de Leon Bay, where the Shark River and other rivers carry the water of Shark River Slough into Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Along the way, we passed a mangrove forest that contained giant remnant black mangroves the size of oak trees! I even saw a tree snail. I had never seen such a big tree snail either!

All the way home, I felt renewed.

I will never forget this special day. The day Ed and I had a Captains’ introduction to the Shark River -and so much more!  Ed and I are forever grateful.

With every experience like this I can see, really see, what needs to be done to send more water south, to save the estuaries, and to replenish Florida Bay. Having met the Shark River, may just have been the ultimate inspiration.

-Ponce de Leon Bay mangrove forest. -Hugging an enormous ancient black mangrove.-An Everglades tree snail!-Captain Chris overlooks Ponce de Leon Bay. -Heading home! -Back on land at Flamingo Marina. A final farewell selfie. -Crocodile loves the comfy boat ramp.-Ospreys feed their rapidly growing young. All animals of the Everglades need flowing fresh water from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. We must continue to send more water south!

Videos: 1 & 2  on the way to the transition zone of the upper forks towards Shark River Slough.

1.

2.

 

3.  Approaching Ponce de Leon Bay that opens into Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico.

 

EAA Reservoir/STA, Modern Progress and a Real Reason for Hope

-Looking towards a future where progress means water flowing south. EAA Reservoir /STA 2021. Photo credit, Libby Pigman, SFWMD. What do they say? “There is no stopping progress!” And the definition of progress changes throughout the ages…

Monday, February 15, 2021, was an Everglades “progress” inspiration for me. The last time I had visited this area was October of 2019. There were vast sugar fields as far as the eye could see. Today, the area is a field of dreams, a goal of collective effort, the lynchpin for sending more water south and significantly alleviating  a hundred years of destruction to the Northern Everglades: St Lucie, Caloosahtchee, and often Lake Worth Lagoon.

The trip to the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir/Stormwater Treatment Area is an experience in and of itself. The District is in charge of building the giant marsh or Stormwater Treatment Area (STA.) South Florida Water Management District  Communications Director, Sean Cooley and I met as the sun rose, and then drove west in a truck from South Florida Water Management District Headquarters through West Palm Beach and the Everglades Agricultural Area, to meet Regional Representative Libby Pigman and Hendry County Commissioner, Carson Turner – who chairs the powerful 16 County Coalition. I have known Commissioner Turner since 2008 and it was fantastic to see him. He is a wealth of knowledge and perspective that I very much appreciate. 

The highlight of the day? Because of my SFWMD Governing Board status, I was allowed to push the button to detonate the dynamite blast. Not really my cup of tea, but it was exciting! And oh my gosh, the shells! Boring 18 feet into the cap rock, thousands of years of ancient earth and shell come to surface.  

As we walked through the piles of rock and shell after the blast, I thought about how this area was once the flooded southern sawgrass plains leading to the Ridge and Slough and Shark River Slough, rising to replenish Florida Bay. I envisioned millions of beautiful wading birds and rookeries doting the spectacular and rare landscape. I thought of how in the name of “progress” humankind drained and destroyed the Everglades. I thought about how priorities change over time. I smiled thinking about how the EAA Reservoir and Storm Water Treatment Area is a real reason for hope, an attempt to return a connection to this sacred River of Grass. In the name of modern progress let’s keep going! For the birds, for the wildlife, for our children, indeed, for all of us. 

Enjoy the photos and blast videos! And thank you to SFWMD staff and RYAN for the tour. -Map of EAA Reservoir/STA. Our location A-2 STA, C-623

*Click here for February 2021 SFWMD EAA Reservoir/STA  construction details and update: Bill_20210216_0001

-A red-eared slider turtle greets us at the gate! “Hurry up…” he says!  -“We want the STA” cried  the wading birds! “We need an upgrade!” -We arrive at the EAA STA construction worksite. -David Anderson, RYAN inspector, reviews safely and the day.-Comr. Turner and I look at a map. Carson shares perspective. I learned a lot. -Amid EAA STA construction: David Anderson, RYAN Inspector; Libby Pigman, Regional Rep, SFWMD, Sean Cooley, Communications Dir. SFWMD, Carson Turner, Hendry County Comr. Dist. 5, JTL GB SFWMD.-Site of detonation that will be part of an intake canal system for the EAA STA (pink highlighter pen, upper left corner, on above map shows approximate location). -Muck, ancient deteriorated sawgrass, scraped from cap rock and piled up will be re-laid after construction in STA for plant growth that will filter the water before it goes to the reservoir.-Ancient shells. Florida is of course, an ancient sea…The Everglades is estimated to be “only” 6000 years old.-Dynamite container bored 18 feet into rock. -RYAN’S Mahmound Khalaifa saw I was looking for shells so he showed me what he had found! Ancient coral head and various bivalves. Beautiful! -More review on safety and blast from true professionals.-JTL prepares to hit the button! 

  1. CLICK HERE FOR AWESOME MOVIE #1 OF DYNAMITE BLAST CREATING THE INTAKE CANAL EAA STA 2021.
  2. CLICK HERE FOR MOVIE #2 EAA STA BLAST 2021  – JTL SCREAMING WITH DELIGHT!

POST BLAST

-Sean Cooley, Communications Director SFWMD and Comr. Turner walk carefully amid the mountainous post-blast site. -Carson Turner & JTL pose for the camera. Jacqui is finding fossils and cool rocks.-Carson found an ancient coral head and gifted it to me. Thank you Comr. Turner! -Driving a short distance from the blast site one sees the infamous “pyramids” against the horizon. This is rock that has been crushed and ground down. It will be used to create the canal edges and levees. Nothing on site is wasted. -Final explanations, questions, and wrap-up! A great day! Rock crusher in background.-The road home …-Treasures from the Earth… Thank you Everglades….-General location of EAA Reservoir STA on Google Maps. It lies between the Miami and New River Canals. The perfect place to reconnect! 

More photos of EAA Reservoir’s STA blast canal digging with explanations, January 2021, TCPalm, photographer, Leah Voss article Max Chesnes.

 

 

There’s A lot More to it Than Mowing…

It may seem like a small thing, but it’s actually a big thing. How does the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) manage mowing responsibilities for the Central and South Florida Project?

The Central and South Florida (C&SF) Project, first authorized by Congress in 1948, is a multi-purpose project that provides flood control, water supply for municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses, prevention of saltwater intrusion, water supply for Everglades National Park, and protection of fish and wildlife resources. The primary system includes more than 1,000 miles each of levees and canals, 150 water control structures, and 16 major pump stations.

~The ACOE built this system and the SFWMD was created to manage it. 

-S-308, C-44, & S-153 in Martin County are part of the vast Central and South Florida ProjectIn December 2020, item 19 of the SFWMD Consent Agenda read:

“Maintenance of District Lands is required to ensure that vegetation is controlled at the appropriate height to provide for optimal performance and operational efficiency of the District’s flood control system.”

I had inquired. I had questioned…

I had visions of the District mowing down every blade of grass. I asked what was done for the ecology? “Does the District leave any flowering weeds for bees or butterflies?” “Does the the District think about vegetation for the wildlife or do we just mow it all down in the name of flood control?” 

I figured it would be the later…I was wrong. 

On January 28, 2021, I got the tour of a lifetime and learned that there was more to it than mowing. A lot more.I met the heads of departments at DuPuis Wildlife Management Area near Indiantown in Martin County. The goal of my tour was to visit levees and canals and learn about SFWMD mowing practices. Photo: South Florida Florida Management Leadership, L-R back to front: Francois Laroche, Vegetation Mgt. Section Administrator; Rich Virgil, Field Ops. Division Director; Rory Feeney, Land Resources Bureau Chief; Chris Edelstein, Field Ops. Bureau Chief; LeRoy Rodger, Invasive Species Unit Lead; and me, JTL, SFWMD Governing Board.

I.

First we drove to the C-44 canal near S-308, an area I know well. The S-308 structure allows the Army Corp of Engineers to discharge water from Lake Okeechobee into the St Lucie River. The C-44 was first constructed from ca. 1913 to 1923 and over the years widened and “improved.” This repetitive disruption of the soil allows invasive plants to move in each time.

I did not realize the extent until SFWMD’s LeRoy Rodgers, Invasive Species Unit Lead,  and Francois Laroche, Vegetation Management Specialist, told me the story and showed me the back side of the C-44 canal near S-308. 

NAPIER GRASS: Introduced as a forage grass for cattle in the early 1900s; this African grass is extremely invasive.  It grows best along disturbed canal edges eventually hindering flood control by blocking access to canals and impeding water flow. It has been here for decades.Over the years, C-44  levees near S-308  have become covered with Napier Grass also known as “Elephant Grass.”

-Canal C-44 at S-308 coved in Napier Grass -Rory Feeney, Land Resources Bureau Chief,  tugs on a Napier plant. ~The Rhizome structure makes the grass very difficult to “just pull out.”The tall grass is mowed intermittently on a schedule. The roots go wide and deep into the ground making it impossible to pull out without compromising the integrity of the Central and South Florida Project at C-44. All that can be done is to manage this explosion of grass. 

I looked around. The tall Napier Grass reached as far as my eye could see. I thought about history. I though about time. I thought about responsibility. I asked if there were any benefits for wildlife. 

LeRoyRodgers, Invasive Species Unit Lead answered. He said certainly, animals could hide there, but it was not a preferred habitat except for one, another invasive, the Burmese Python. He noted that when the SFWMD mowing crews started finding chopped-up python down in Homestead, a few years ago, that was when the District became aware of the python population issue down there.

Not a good visual…

The men compared areas showing me how the grass does respond to more frequent mowing. They explained how when it is mowed, some is cut short, some is left long and some is cut more often than other.

Closest to the road, where it can be mowed more frequently, I could see other plants and weeds not just Nadier Grasses coming in.  Weed-like flowers bloomed here and there. Francois Laroche, Vegetation Management Specialist explained the ways of nature. With the more frequent mowing, other plants could “compete.”

I started to get the picture…

-LeRory Rodgers, Invasive Species Unit Lead, points to other plants coming in when Napier Grass is more frequently mowed along flat areas.

II.

Next, we drove just a bit further to the intersection of the C-44 and the  S-153 Structure. This structure controls the water inside a canal parallel to Highway 98 and the FPL cooling pond.  It was explained to me that this levee is a second line of defense should the waters of Lake Okeechobee pour over. A levee holds water back and a canal moves water. We were here to look at the levee. However, keep in mind, there is a “canal” where dirt is dug to build a levee…-S-153 intersects with C-44 canal; it is an area full of wildlife and displays both native and non-native plants along the canal used to build the levee.

-LeRoy Rodgers & Rich Vigil observe a fern; this one is not native, used in landscaping yards. -S-153 at C-44 canal Looking around I was happy to see more flowering weeds and plants, and less invasive Napier Grass. This wasn’t the “flowering prairie” I had hoped for, but after my lesson on invasives, I was a bit more open minded. As I looked around, small birds darted away, quickly taking cover. A fish jumped close to a mass of dollar weeds that were wedged up against a floating rope. Some wildlife lives here! 

I was starting to consider the balance.  Where there was mowing, there were more flowering weeds and other plants. As Francois had said, mowing allowed competition.  

To answer my question about plants for pollinators, we found numerous native Spanish Needles. These native blooms are highly visited by a range of pollinators and butterflies. There were others I did not recognize flowering as well. I saw a yellow butterfly, maybe a sulphur. Dragonflies were everywhere. I could hear insects chirping. 

Mr LeRoy and the others picked flowers saying the names in Latin. We discussed the various vegetation, some native, some not, along the levee. It was a mix.