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Changing Channels on the Kissimmee

















Photo of unrestored section shows C-38 canal and portion of remnant natural channel.






It was the big flood control story of the 1950s, taming the Kissimmee River—cattle ranchers and politicians argued that it just had to be done.

It was the big environmental story of the 1970s, restoring the Kissimmee River—conservationists and politicians argued that it had to be done.

So we did both, first turning a winding river into a straight-as-an-arrow canal, and now turning a canal back into a winding river. The Kissimmee River drains 3,000 square miles of Central Florida between Orlando and Lake Okeechobee. Rain falling in the upper basin collects in a chain of lakes, flowing from one to the other until entering the river at the lower end of Lake Kissimmee. From there, the river once traced a slow, undulating path south for 103 miles to Lake Okeechobee.

All that changed in the 1950s, when humans began tinkering.

By 1971, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had sliced a canal, 50 miles long, 200 feet wide and 30 feet deep, straight through the meandering river and floodplain.

As some experts had warned, 31,000 acres of marsh dried up. Wildlife populations plummeted, and the numbers of wintering waterfowl, estimated at 12,000 birds a year, fell by more than 90 percent.

The once beautiful Kissimmee River, now more accurately known as the C-38 Canal, had been turned into a drainage ditch.

Even before the project was completed, scientists and conservation groups were lobbying for restoration. But it was a presentation before Florida's governor and cabinet in 1972 by noted scientist Art Marshall that is often cited as a political turning point.

It wasn't until 1992, however, that the Army Corp of Engineers was finally ordered to proceed with the largest river restoration project ever attempted. Twenty-two miles of the canal would be backfilled, restoring 43 miles of natural river channel and re-flooding 27,000 acres of marshlands.

Phase I of four backfilling phases was completed ahead of schedule in March of 2001.

Numbers of wading birds like egrets and herons increased six-fold, and wintering waterfowl returned to the wetlands in a big way.

“There's definitely more game out there, especially for duck hunters,” said Byron Maharrey, a member of the Florida Sportsmen's Conservation Association in Palm Beach County.

Overall the project includes the public acquisition of around 110,000 acres of land, much of which has already been purchased and is now open to the public as Wildlife Management Areas.

Bass fishing in the restored area also seems to be on the upswing.

Dissolved oxygen (DO) levels should improve in the restored river, reversing a general decline brought about by the 1950s channelization. Largemouth bass had largely been replaced by species such as garfish and bowfin (mudfish) that can better survive under low DO conditions.

A restored Kissimmee should also result in cleaner water delivered to Lake Okeechobee. The wetlands can assimilate nutrients out of the water column and reduce turbidity. It won't take the place of a badly needed “Zone D Diet” for the Big O, detailed in the September issue, but it should help.

 















Backfilling some parts of the canal has allowed water to flow naturally into wetlands, creating important seasonal habitat for fish and wildlife.






The bigger question might be when.

The original completion date of 2009 has been moved to 2012, “and now they may be five years behind on that,” said Paul Gray, with the Florida Audubon Society.

One of the holdups has been acquisition of land around the upper chain of lakes that's needed to allow an increase in water storage. “The district has a mission to complete land acquisition by December 2005. That's a hard date that has been set so we can proceed with restoration,” said Williams, adding that the remaining backfilling phases won't begin until 2008, but that, “all the dirt will be in the canal by 2012.”

 



































Check Out the Restored River




The best way to see the restored portion of the Kissimmee River is to launch at the S-65C public boat ramp, which is located on the north side of Highway 98 between the towns of Basinger and Lorida.

About a mile north of the ramp the C-38 canal comes to an abrupt end. From there you can continue north for 15 miles along the restored river to where the canal starts again. Watch out for a set of orange buoys at the very end of the canal that mark an underwater structure.

Boaters should also watch their speed in the restored part of the Kissimmee. With more and more people using the river, there's an increased chance of meeting another boat coming the other way on one of the switchbacks where the line of sight is restricted.

A Guide to the Kissimmee Waterway can be ordered from the South Florida Water Management District, P.O. Box 24680, West Palm Beach, FL 33406; (561) 686-8800. Or go to “publications” at www.sfwmd.com.

 






Gray is also concerned about the way the system has been managed to date.

Since completion of Phase I, the river has enjoyed more than 36 months of continuous flow. At the same time, Gray notes the floodplain has gone through wild swings of flood and drought, constantly setting back the restoration process. During the summer of 2004, the floodplain was suffering conditions equal to a 1-in-10-year drought; some say a similar fate may be in store next year.

Increased storage in the upper chain of lakes may alleviate such problems in the future, but for now, Gray puts at least part of the blame on the decision by the FWC to go forward with a muck removal project on Lake Tohopekaliga. Because they're all connected, a number of lakes in the chain had to be lowered in order to draw down Tohopekaliga.

Now when the floodplain needs the water, there isn't any to provide until the lakes fill up. The same could happen next year. Even before the drawdown, flow projections for 2004 and 2005 were zero for part of the dry season.

Worse, delays in Kissimmee restoration may ultimately hinder the much larger Everglades restoration project. As in the past, the two are connected.

“The Everglades restoration plan assumes that the Kissimmee restoration will be finished,” said Gray. “If that doesn't happen, the modeling that Everglades restoration is based on will no longer be valid. You simply can't have one without the other.”

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