Monday, August 30, 2010

The Road to Restoration

When I picture South Florida development in the early twentieth century, Pixar’s Toy Story comes to mind. Specifically that scene where the twisted neighborhood menace, Sid, blows up his toys and then haphazardly puts them back together. The result, a tangled mess of limbs and appendages painfully trying to pass as functioning toys. Throughout the carnage, his parents, the supposed voices of reason and control, are nowhere to be seen. Looking at a map which highlights all the canals and modified waterways of South Florida, early Floridian pioneers' lofty goals were not so far from the misguided endeavors of our animated friend. And you have to ask yourself, where were Florida’s voices of reason in all of this?

It’s no mystery that the hydrology of the state is completely off-kilter. In fact, the state of Florida is now spending hundreds of millions of dollars to right the wrongs of unabashed development along vital wetlands. A complex mosaic of private and public lands lead from the headwaters of Lake Okechobee down to the southern tip of Florida through what was once called “the river of grass.” These little puzzle pieces are more than just parcels of land and obstructions to water flow; they represent interest groups that run the gamut from Native American tribes, to farmers, to generations of families. Difficult doesn’t even begin to describe the immensity of the challenges that the state faces to restore the Everglades. Little by little, however, South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) is starting to tackle the problem of inadequate freshwater flow into the historic watershed.

To break it down as simply as I can, freshwater was diverted away from South Florida in order to drain what would become fertile land for agriculture. This water would then go either to the cities or out to the ocean. Losing a significant amount of freshwater would then allow saltwater to creep in and destroy habitat for wading birds, fish, and plant life along the coast. Our studies with National Audubon are to prove this shift and thus shape policy to get more freshwater back into the system. More freshwater means more aquatic vegetation, which means more fish, which then means more birds.

Map courtesy of SFWMD shows the C-111 canal and its proximity to Taylor Slough. 
The green area represents Everglades National Park.

One of the major canals that we are concerned with is called the Aerojet Canal, aka the C-111. In the 60s Aerojet dug the C-111 in order to ship massive space shuttle engines (21ft in diameter, too large for trains) out to Biscayne Bay and then up to Canaveral. Just before it could start manufacturing the engines, however, NASA pulled the contract and went with a smaller, less expensive engine, leaving South Florida with this canal. The C-111 is important for Everglades restoration because it draws a significant amount of freshwater from the ground and diverts it away from its historical path along Taylor Slough.

Last week, Tavernier Science Center was invited to go out to the C-111 spreader canal project site to see what three years of planning, 25 million dollars, and our research was going towards.

Workers spread concrete in 50ft sections along the C-111 spreader canal project.

SFWMD exploded a hole in the limestone bedrock to build this pump station. They have to drain the
water in four foot increments then patch the leaks until they get down to the 11-foot thick concrete base
which they poured while completely underwater. 

Project manager Sam Palermo, gave us a tour of the site and explained how the spreader canal project would redirect water from the C-111 and spill over into Taylor Slough. Two pumps bring water (100,000 gallons per minute) from the C-111 down the lined channels into the retaining cells instead of rushing out to the ocean. SFWMD would then backfill the remaining C-111 canal in order to stop it from draining surrounding lands. The idea seems simple enough, although water management in Florida has never been an easy task. Sam, with years of experience improving the headwaters of Lake Okechobee, states that it's taken a long time to get the project through legislation so they've had ample time to work out the kinks. 

A map of the Areojet waterway and pump station shows the beginning of the second phase of construction.

We are all very excited and optimistic to start noting the hydrological changes once this project is completed in July of 2011. If this program succeeds, it just might be the impetus to trigger more large-scale projects farther north. I am amazed at how much money and time it costs to undo the ill-conceived plans of Florida’s corporate expansion, but hopeful, because at least we are spending the time and money. 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sunday Sunset

Sunset from Islamorada over the Florida Bay

As hurricane Earl pulses northbound along the Greater Antilles, the Florida Keys receives warning signs that storm season has begun. Albeit later than usual, temperatures are holding at a balmy 95 degrees providing ample heat to turn a tropical storm into a hurricane. In the meantime, from a safe distance, I'll look out my windows at the sunset, metal shutters packed away, enjoying how the sinister cumulus mountains turn into harmless tufts of cotton candy.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Every Spoonbill Counts

A close bond exists between the different conservation groups and agencies in the Florida Keys. National Audubon coordinates with the FWC, the Everglades National Park, and recently, the Wild Bird Center of Key Largo. As you know, we have been studying the roseate spoonbills as indicators for overall Everglades restoration efforts; thus, every spoonbill counts. So when we got a call from the Wild Bird Center that they had been rehabilitating a juvenile spoonbill, we grew very interested to track its progress.

Vered Nograd, the hospital director with a recuperated spoonbill

The spoonbill arrived at the Wild Bird Center about a month ago weighing 900 grams, totally emaciated and plagued with hookworms. Somehow, the bird had separated from its group and unable to find optimal foraging grounds in the Keys it barely survived. Vered Nograd, the director of the Wild Bird Center hospital, helped nurse the spoonbill back to health, nearly doubling its weight to 1750 grams, and last Wednesday they decided it was ready to be released back into the park. 

Takeoff! The rest of the spoonbills are just in the distance.

Pete and I took off from Tavernier across the Bay to meet Vered and her assistant, Suzie Roebling, at a favorable spoonbill foraging site. Within minutes of releasing the bird, it flew off to a stand of mangroves and preened itself twenty yards from the other spoonbills. After a good grooming, it built up the courage and flew over to its new group. Only moments after, we watched it catch its first fish. Success!

"Spooner" as they called him, ready to join his new friends in the shallows

Sure, it’s just one spoonbill and the Wild Bird Center spent lots of money providing the medicine, fish, and time to nurse this one bird back to health
. But the gesture alone of caring for, protecting, and ensuring the future of this one bird provides a perfectly tangible example of the level of commitment required to protect such a fragile and important ecosystem. 

Vered and Suzie's first spoonbill release! Mission accomplished!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Florida Bay Lightning

Bolts of lightning rain down on coconut palms lining the Florida Bay

A month has passed with fickle summer weather bringing electric storms barreling off the tip of Florida. Since I got here I've imagined images of lightning strikes over mangrove swamps or dwarf cypress, but I haven't managed to be in the right place at the right time.

A 7-image stitch reveals a panoramic of a storm system brewing off of Cape Sable.

Taking the time to learn how storm systems build and travel is starting to pay off. I now keep an active report on my phone to track weather patterns so I can quickly hop in my car or kayak to follow a promising lead. Needless to say, this system isn't full-proof and I've spent countless hours patiently awaiting the supposed downpours with my camera in waterproof gear, only to have the storm split and go directly around me. It's unpredictability is humbling and frustrating, but it would be short-sighted to denounce the very character that I've come to love about nature photography.

These clouds move fast, which you can see by the blurred top portion during a ten second exposure.

You can imagine my excitement then, when the hard work pays off. This past Wednesday on my way back from Key Largo, I noticed a dark cloud bank off the northwest corner of the Florida Bay. I checked my phone and saw the deep crimson blobs surrounded by green heading southeast towards Tavernier. Speeding home, I grabbed my camera, a headlamp, and a kayak and went straight for a shallow mangrove patch I scouted a month prior.

I paddled out 15 minutes from the ramp near my house and made it just in time for the peak of the light show. I ran a few test exposures before setting up my camera for a 4.5 minute exposure in order to capture multiple strikes while balancing the light in the foreground without the use of external strobes. When the image finally processed and I looked at the LCD, all that pent up frustration of failed attempts vanished, instantly.

 Light show on Florida Bay.