Restoring a River- The Quest To Resurrect The Kissimmee
by Big Mike

The Kissimmee River and the lakes it passes through, in the words of a local long time resident, " Ain't what it used to be". For over 100 years the Kissimmee has been channelized, diverted, and used for the benefit of agriculture and ranchers, with recreational interests and conservation taking a distant second place in consideration.

This is nothing new, as a look back at the history of development in central Florida begins in the mid 1800's with the Federal Government transferring lamds to the State for the purpose of " Draining the Spoiled and Overflowed Lands" for the benefit of Agriculture.

      We do know that originally, what was called the “Kissimmee River” referred only to the short waterway between the southern point of Lake Cypress and north Lake Kissimmee. The Kissimmee River, before Disston’s canals, ran from Lake Cypress to Lake Hatchineha, exiting the south side. From there it was a few miles to Lake Kissimmee, entering the northwest end and exiting on the southwest, and then twisting some 130 miles to Lake Okeechobee.

      The shores of Lake Tohopekaliga (Lake Toho) is the site of the city of Kissimmee and on East Lake Toho is the site of St. Cloud. Kissimmee was known in the past as Allendale and later Kissimmee City. The water connections between the City of Kissimmee and Lake Kissimmee are known today as the Southport Canal and The Cypress-Hatchineha canal.

      The 3,000 square miles of the Kissimmee River Basin system start near Orlando and extend south some 90 miles to Lake Okeechobee. These are the headwaters of the entire Everglades system.

      Before 1961, the Kissimmee River meandered 166 kilometers (102.9 miles) from its origin in Lake Kissimmee to the northern shore of Lake Okeechobee. Its often wider-than-a-mile floodplain offered a large patchwork of wetland habitats for many unique species. Over 35 species of fish, 16 species of wading birds, 16 species of waterfowl, river otters, many species of invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles and other plants and animals swam, roamed, waded and flew over the extensive 18,000 hectare (45,000 acres) floodplain.

      Much of this natural richness disappeared with the channelization of the river in the 1960’s and 1970’s, which was a result of public pressure to diminish damage done to people and their property by floods. The 166 kilometer winding path of the Kissimmee River was transformed into a 90 kilometer long, 9 meter deep, 100 meter wide canal, known today, as the C-38 canal. This transformation caused between 12 and 14,000 hectares of wetlands to drain and dry up, with the consequent loss of the incredibly rich flora and fauna.

The First Dredging and Canals
      In July 1882 work started on the Southport Canal, between Lake Tohopekaliga and Lake Cypress. When the canal was finished, attention was turned to the canal connecting Lake Toho to East Lake Toho, and that cut was finished in 1884. The canal between Lake Cypress and Hatchineha was not part of the original plan, as Disston had intended to cut a canal straight from Lake Cypress, just west of Canoe Creek to the north end of Lake Kissimmee’s North Cove above Sturm Island. This would have bypassed Lake Hatchineha and several miles of the Kissimmee River. The canal was started but the dredge ran into solid rock a couple of miles into the cut. The canal was abandoned, and the dredge moved to cut a canal between Lake Cypress and Lake Hatchineha.

      Accounts vary about the rapid drop of the lakes after the completion of the canals, but it is certain that within thirty days the water levels around Lake Toho and East Lake Toho went down some thirty six inches. The bottom of the lake ranged from a pristine white sand to a fertile muck that could grow almost any fruit or vegetable without fertilizer.

  After Hurricane Donna in 1961 there was a lingering problem with flood waters, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had the perfect opportunity to push through the channelization project. With their eyes mainly focused on flood control, the public allowed the Corps project to take away the pristine river that had flowed before it. In it's place the Corps put an arrow-straight ditch, draining many areas that once supported aquatic life and wading birds. The marshes without water quickly dried up and the muck that had been accumulating for generations soon was gone. Without the filtering effect of the marshes, the nutrients from the ranches and farms soon were finding their way directly into Lake Okeechobee, and from there to the St. Lucie and the Indian River System.

      Long before the canal was finished, the loss of biodiversity became a concern. The Kissimmee River Restoration Act of 1976 initiated a series of state and federal initiatives to restore the integrity of the river in order to retrieve some of the lost benefits that the original pre-channelized river provided. Riverwoods Field Laboratory is one of these initiatives and the location where much of the research related to the restoration activities will be conducted.

  Filling of the canal has begun, and restoration of the river below Lake Kissimmee is well underway. Above Lake Kissimmee the Corps has been widening the canals by dredging and says that they want to be able to let the river " maintain a continous flow of water" as part of the restoration process.

When the first phase of the restoration project is complete in 2005, there will have been 11 million cubic yards of dirt moved back into the river channel, and eventually 43 miles of the original river will be returned to a wild and winding state. The remaining 91 miles will be left as is, due to concerns about upstream flooding in the Kissimmee chain of lakes and downstream in populated areas. R/TT>eportedly the old river channel was so well removed engineers needed old aerial maps to plot where the restored channel had to go. The wildlife recovery in the reclaimed areas will take some years to happen, but already after just a year and a half there are promising signs of a return for some species. Birds are already benefitting from the changes, as the area is home to several threatned and endangered species such as the Snail Kite and the Limpkin. It took nature thousands of years to make the marshes and riverbed and only a few generations for man to mess it up. Let's hope we are as good at restoring it.

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Last Update: 10/18/2000
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