News Press

Kissimmee River Rebirth Helps SW Fla.

December 21, 2009

The successful restoration of the Kissimmee River north of Lake Okeechobee has earned world renown; wildlife, plant life and water quality have come roaring back in a once-magnificent river system that had been straightened in the 1960s into a sterile flood-control canal.

So why should Southwest Florida care about a river 70 miles away?

Because the water quality of the lake is determined to a large extent by how much pollution is dumped into it by the Kissimmee. Water quality in the lake, in turn, affects the Caloosahatchee River and Lee County's coastal estuary because excess water in the lake has to be diverted into our river - at least until a better southerly flow way is developed.

"The health of the Caloosahatchee is predicated on what goes into Lake Okeechobee from the Kissimmee," says Charles Dauray, who is Lee, Collier, Hendry and Charlotte counties' representative on the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District. "The health of our economy and environment is directly related to what's going on in Lake Okeechobee."

A special report in The News-Press last week examined the impact on Southwest Florida of the Kissimmee restoration, part of the $10.9 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

Plugging parts of the main channel and diverting water back into the old, meandering river channel and onto the wide natural flood plain not only restores superb wildlife habitat, but allows the slow-moving water to be filtered and cleansed of urban and agricultural pollutants, the way it was before straightening.

The less of that junk that reaches the lake, the less that reaches Lee County, triggering algae blooms that can add toxins to the water, cover grass beds with mats of muck and blot up so much oxygen that fish and other critters expire.

Restoration started in 1999. When it's complete in 2015, 43 miles of river and 24,000 acres of marsh will have been returned to their natural function.

It's one piece of the plan to partly undo the wasteful re-plumbing of southern Florida's natural system, conserving and cleaning enough water to provide for nature, farms and cities.

The theoretical lesson is not to mess with nature too much in the first place. But we never learn that one, so the practical lesson is fix what you've broken.