News Press

Kissimmee River making comeback

By Kevin Lollar

December 14, 2009

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series looking at the Everglades Restoration project and its effect on Lee County.

An almost day-and-night biological change met passengers last week as the pontoon boat entered the restored section of the Kissimmee River from the C-38 canal.

While the 300-foot-wide, laser-straight C-38 was dull and lifeless, the 25- to 50-foot-wide, serpentine, restored river channel exploded with wildlife, especially birds.
Among the busy, often-noisy cast were great blue, little blue and tri-color herons, ospreys, wood storks and lots of alligators.

So far, the largest river restoration project in history — a joint effort of the South Florida Water Management District and Army Corps of Engineers — is working, said Clarence Tears, director of the Big Cypress Basin, a part of the water district.

“This restoration is so exciting: The river is actually recovering,” said Tears, who was aboard the pontoon boat last week. “When we looked out over the marshes and saw it was wet again, that was exciting. And the

wildlife flying and moving around. It was neat to see so many wood storks and yellow-crested night herons and birds with fish in their beaks.”

Restoring the Kissimmee River is an important part of the $10.9 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, said Cathy Byrd, an Army Corps biologist.

“The Kissimmee restoration is at the headwaters of the Everglades,” she said. “Everglades restoration begins there. Kissimmee restoration is the cornerstone.”

Although the Kissimmee is in the center of the state, restoring it and its floodplain will improve water quality in the Caloosahatchee River and its estuary.

“The health of the Caloosahatchee is predicated on what goes into Lake Okeechobee from the Kissimmee,” said Charles Dauray, a member of the water district’s governing board who represents Lee, Collier, Hendry and Charlotte counties. “The health of our economy and environment is directly related to what’s going on in Lake Okeechobee.”

Far-reaching effects

The story of the Kissimmee River in the late 20th century is a story of bad environmental management followed by sound environmental wisdom.

In its natural state, the Kissimmee snaked from Lake Kissimmee to Lake Okeechobee, a distance of about 50 miles as the crow flies but 103 miles on the river.

Its 40,000-acre floodplain, two miles wide in places, was underwater for long periods and, thus, was a thriving wetland full of vegetation, fish, birds, reptiles and insects.

During the 1940s, however, a series of floods devastated towns and farms in the Kissimmee Valley, and in 1954, Congress authorized a flood-control plan for the valley.

Beginning in 1962, the Army Corps dug a 300-foot-wide, 30-foot-deep canal through the floodplain from Lake Okeechobee to Lake Kissimmee.

When the canal, designated C-38, was finished in 1971, it drained 30,000 acres of wetlands and water no longer spread out over the floodplain; instead, it gushed straight to Lake Okeechobee.

Even before the canal was done, people decried the project’s environmental effects.
Most obviously, the canal drained the floodplain, and the wetlands became dry pasture, so fish and wildlife populations crashed.

Water no longer flowed through remaining river fragments, so huge amounts of aquatic plants that grew there, died and sank to the bottom.

As the vegetation rotted, it sucked oxygen from the water; game fish such as largemouth bass disappeared; bowfin and gar, species that like low-oxygen water took over.

Before the canal was dug, the Kissimmee’s surrounding marshes filtered pollutants out of the water.

The canal destroyed that natural filter, and pollutants ran into Lake Okeechobee, ultimately reaching the Caloosahatchee.

“We really messed up our natural system when we channelized the Kissimmee,” Dauray said. “The water coming down the Caloosahatchee is the water that comes down the Kissimmee.”

Fixing mistakes

In 1992, 38 years after authorizing the plan that broke the Kissimmee River, Congress approved a plan to fix it — the project will cost $640 million, which will be split between the Army Corps and water district.

Work was started in 1999; two of four phases are finished, and 19 miles of the Kissimmee River have been restored — restoration includes removing water-control structures and filling C-38 with spoil from digging the canal.

By the time the project is complete in 2015, 43 miles of river and 24,000 of acres will have been restored.

C-38 will remain intact at the north and south ends to reduce flooding.

Even as construction continues, birds are flocking to the restored part of the river.

“Birds used to fly from the Everglades up toward the upper Chain of Lakes, and they’d see the dry pasture and wouldn’t stop,” said Lawrence Glenn, director of the water district’s Kissimmee Division. “Immediately after construction, they’d fly over and it was, hey, cool, let’s stop. There’s water. We can forage here.”

One of the most common birds seen during last week’s pontoon boat ride was the endangered wood stork, often considered an indicator species: A healthy wood stork population indicates healthy wetlands.

“I’ve never seen so many wood storks,” said naturalist Bob Nesmith of Naples. “To see as many as we did is encouraging. We’ve been paying lip service to restoration forever. To see this kind of restoration is heartwarming.”

Additional Facts

Environmental benefits

Here are some of the improvements in the Kissimmee River since restoration began:

• Wading bird numbers are five times larger than before restoration.

• Five duck species absent for more than 40 years have returned to the flood plain: ring-necked duck, American widgeon, Northern shoveler, Northern pintail, fulvous whistling duck.

• Eight shorebird species have returned: Western sandpiper, spotted sandpiper, least sandpiper, semipalmated plover, greater yellowlegs, dowitcher, black-necked stilt, American avocet.

• Muck on the river bottom has decreased by 71 percent.

• Largemouth bass and sunfishes make up 64 percent of the fish community, up from 38 percent.

Source: South Florida Water Management District.