I've always been a big fan of getting a thumb-nail awareness of the greater watershed wherever and whenever I travel. For example, I was just up at a conference in Gainesville, which is just north of scenic Payne's Prairie, which was fun to find out more about, and briefly hike through. Of course I only had time for a brief view -- as the conference was packed with talks just like the Langerado music festival is packed with must-hear music.
But, in the chance that you do have a chance to sneak away from the festival -- for a few hours, or for a half day -- you are in good position, smack in the middle of the expansive wetlands and waterways of south Florida's interconnected waterways.
The water cycle connects them all.
In south Florida its constantly turning, and never ceases to amaze in its details, and interaction of all its parts. The challenge in south Florida is to tap into the water cycle in a way that sustains both us and the natural places we love. The water cycle starts with the sky: south Florida gets around 50 inches of rain per year, but three-quarters of that falls during the 6-month wet season, starting in late May and ending with the wind-down of hurricane season in October. South Florida is water plentiful when you compare it to other regions -- such as the 4 inches of annual rain that falls at Hoover Dam -- but the seasonal signature of rainfall means that the prospect of drought and flood is always at our doorstep.
That pendulum has swung in the direction of drought in recent months, as you may have heard.
To the north, Lake Okeechobee is at an all-time low for early March. We're in the middle of our second consecutive year rainfall was scarce over the Lake and upstream Kissimmee Basin. It was just 6-months ago in June 2007 that Lake Okeechobee dropped down to its lowest recorded level ever (~8.8 ft above mean sea level), and water managers are bracing for the Lake dropping to even lower in the months to come. Don't miss the opportunity to see and touch the big lake at this historic moment.
Or you could travel west to Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. It offers a hike through the last and largest stand of old growth cypress in south Florida. The Redwood Giants in northern California grow as tall as 350 feet. The old growth cypress of Corkscrew are about a quarter as tall, but no less scenic, and are the arboreal giants of south Florida. The hydrologic story there was the year without a wet season. The rule of thumb in south Florida is that we always have a wet season -- yes, it varies in magnitude, but we can always count on the summer rains to fill the swamp up with water. Not in 2007. Or almost not. The summer rains did manage to push the water table up into the deepest portions of the swamp, but it was the shallowest summer seen in Corkscrew since 1970.
Or you could travel south to Big Cypress National Preserve and Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. Best known for the scenic view of cypress domes and strands where during the summer surface water rises to knee-high depth, both contain a diverse mosaic of wet prairie and pineland uplands. (Keep in mind these are Lilliputian uplands, only a foot or two higher than the surrounding cypress). The big story was the surprise +5 inches of February rain. That's tied a 25-year February record, and refilled the swamps with surface water, effectively rewinding the water cycle back in time several months.
Or you could travel to the east into the Everglades. Don't miss your opportunity to see the sphinx-like structures -- geometrical and speechless -- that control flow into its different basins, or cast your eye out into the vast sawgrass plain. A few of them are still open, but most of them are closed for the dry season. Everglades National Park is at a 17-year low; that's in respect to both inflows entering the park from across the Tamiami Trail and in terms of water levels in central Shark River Slough, the main wetland water body that meanders through the Park and discharges into downstream Florida Bay.
That's just a few of the places you could go, or think about, not to mention the beach.
But most of all enjoy the music. I'm a big Bob Dylan fan myself.
In the event that the music is too good or you can't get away, The South Florida Watershed Journal (http://sfwj.blogspot.com/) brings the story of south Florida's water cycle and its interconnected watersheds right to your fingertips.
Enjoy a safe and happy stay in south Florida. And remember, wherever you are, find a way to stay in tune and in touch with your local watershed.