Southwest Florida’s Water Cycle – One Wild Ride

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It was summer in Florida. Thunder and lightning were adding drama to the still afternoon among the houses and fields inland from the Estero Bay Preserve and Fort Myers Beach. Towering thunderstorms were pulling the warm, humid air from the surface into the cold air of the high atmosphere where it condensed. The misty rain fell from its great heights only to be swept back up with the convective winds where it formed larger drops. This cycle continued until gravity helped the heavy drops escape the thunderstorm and they fell to earth with a great fury. The first rains were quickly absorbed by the porous sandy soils, and then began to pool in low-lying areas. Soon the rain was washing across the yards and fields, washing away any fertilizer that was foolishly laid down in Florida’s wet season.

The water flowed quickly over hard ground until it entered freshwater marshes where it spread out through the grasses and slowed down. Sediments gradually settled in the calmer waters and soils. The hardy marsh plants and grasses then begin the process of removing excess nutrients and pollutants from the water. This marshland and the fresh water joined together to create an ideal habitat for frogs, birds and snails. Gravity slowly pulled the water through the marshes, sometimes pausing in pools and sometimes flowing steadily across the grasses.

From there the water eventually flowed into the tidal flats and to its first meeting with brackish water. The waters mingled, the fresh water making the brackish a bit fresher. The mix of waters and mud created a habitat that supports a large number of species including crabs, fish and mollusks. Soon the water was free from the pull of earth’s gravity and was pulled by the gravitational power of the moon and tides. Its journey now took it back and forth with the tides as it continued to slowly make its way to the open ocean. It had now passed the boundary into the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve.

The tides pulled the water over sea-grass beds, oyster beds and in and out of channels in the mangroves. Every area was a different experience for the water. It washed through Seagrass beds full of Redfish, Sea Trout and Snook. An acre of Seagrass can support as many as 40,000 fish! It washed over oyster beds where hard working oysters can each filter more than a gallon of water every hour. The water took tidal excursions into the mangrove channels, flowing through the Red Mangrove roots and back out again. Some of the water was soaked up by red mangrove roots and was evaporated off the leaves back into the air, fresh with more oxygen and a chance for another ride in a summer thunderstorm. Most of it just washed through to roots that provide refuge for small and immature fish and hunting grounds for Snapper, Snook, Tarpon, Sheepshead, Shrimp and more hard working Oysters.

The journey seemed random at times, in and out of mangrove channels, passing over oyster beds and sea grass beds, but the forces of nature were pushing the water slowly out into the open ocean and the water was getting saltier as it continued. One day, the water got caught up in the tidal currents sweeping through one of the passes that lead into the Gulf of Mexico. Now much saltier, it flowed with the great ocean currents far away from where it started. From there it could sink into the great depths of the ocean trenches and wash up on distant beaches. Eventually, the relentless force of the sun will evaporate the water and lift it back into the air for the chance at another wild ride.

Bill Veach

Chairman, Marine Resources Task Force