A joint state-federal project thought to be the largest, most ambitious river restoration project ever attempted in the world has been stalled. Government officials and environmental groups are advocating for restarting the project.
A history lesson on what has happened to the Kissimmee River will help explain why this project is so important. The River once ran for 103 miles through Central Florida. Wetland plants, wading birds and fish thrived there. Hurricanes in the 1940’s caused flooding that had negative impact on people living there. So between 1964 and 1970 the Army Corps of Engineers hacked away at the Kissimmee River transforming it into a 30-feet-deep straightaway called the C-38 canal. While the dredging helped with the flooding it had unforeseen environmental consequences. Wading birds declined along the River, waterfowl numbers fell more than 90 percent and Bald Eagle nesting declined by 75 percent. Most scientists condemned the channelization as a major environmental catastrophe. To address these issues in 1992 Congress authorized a joint state-federal project to restore ecological integrity to a 22 mile section of the channelized river while maintaining regional flood protection.
According to the South Florida Water Management District fact sheet, the restoration began in June 1999 and three phases have been completed, refilling 14 miles of canal and reestablishing continuous water flow to 24 miles of the River. The remaining phases will backfill another 9 miles of canal and restore flow to an additional 16.4 miles of the River. The fact sheet notes that monitoring of the first phase of the project, completed in 2001, has already shown improvement in the river and floodplain. Their findings include: the aquatic wading bird population in the restored region is more than five times greater than before, duck species have returned to the floodplain after being absent for 40 years and several shorebird species have also returned. They also found that organic deposits on the river bottom decreased by 71 percent, reestablishing sand bars and providing new habitat for shorebirds and invertebrates including native clams. Dissolved oxygen levels have increased to a range found in minimally impacted Florida streams which is critical for long term survival of fish. Sunfishes and largemouth bass now comprise 64 percent of the fish community, up 38 percent.
Now the final stage of the project is at risk. The problem is a land dispute between the Corps and the West Palm Beach based water district that officials say they thought was resolved years ago. The project is jointly funded by federal, state and water management funds with costs equally shared.
The dispute centers on the cost of dealing with flooding threats to private property along the lower portion of the river. The South Florida Water Management District had proposed a flood control levee and deed restrictions which they say the Corps agreed to. However Corps officials want SFWMD to purchase a flowage easement on the property.
Until the dispute is resolved the important environmental objective of fully restoring this complex Florida wetlands is on hold.