Kissimmee River Restoration – a Success Story
Before the 1960s, Florida’s Kissimmee River meandered more than 100 miles through wetlands, eventually making its way into the Everglades ecosystem. Its two-mile floodplain was regularly inundated by seasonal rainfall, providing important habitat to wetland plants, fish, wading birds, and other species. The area was home to over 39 species of fish and 38 species of water birds.
Unfortunately, in an attempt to control the threat of severe storms and flooding in southern Florida, the US Congress authorized the canalization of the Kissimmee River. This meant the river’s curves were clipped and turned into a 30-foot deep, 300-foot wide, 56-mile long, straight-line drainage canal.
While in the short term, this effort reduced flooding, eventually, it caused many environmental problems. Converting the river into a straight-line drainage canal dried out approximately 50,000 acres of the floodplain below Lake Kissimmee. The fast-flowing water caused by the straightening of the river diminished the oxygen levels. This raised the number of pollutants in the water. As a result, the quality of the waterfowl habitat and the number of birds and fish decreased significantly. Over 90 percent of the waterfowl that once graced the wetlands disappeared, and the number of bald eagle nesting areas decreased by 70 percent.
Luckily these issues didn’t last very long due to a collaborative effort by the US Army Corp of Engineers and state, federal and local partners. As a result of the Kissimmee River Restoration Project, almost half of the river’s length (forty miles of wetlands, to be precise) has been regenerated by filling more than 20 miles of the channel with sediment and excavating the river’s natural bends to reestablish its meandering course.
When flooding began again, many of the aquatic weeds were flushed out, and once-dormant plants started to reestablish themselves. Sandbars emerged, and the continuous flow of water increased dissolved oxygen levels in the water. This re-created near-perfect conditions for insects, crayfish and shrimp, which in turn boosted fished populations and led to a rise in bird and alligator populations.
Continuous water flow has been re-established to 24 miles of the Kissimmee River, and seasonal rains and flows now inundate the floodplain in the restored area. The River is expected to rise one and a half feet, storing water to feed the river during the dry season and rehydrating another 20 square miles of dried marshes.
As of July 2021, the Kissimmee River Restoration Project has restored over 40 square miles of the river floodplain ecosystem, 20,000 acres of wetlands, and 44 miles of the historic river channel. The river now supports at least 159 bird species, 66 of which are considered wetland-dependent during some portion of their life cycles. The Kissimmee River restoration project is one of the world’s largest true ecosystem restoration projects and sets the example for projects worldwide.
It’s amazing to see our impacts when we try to alter nature to fit our needs and how nature will heal itself if we let it act the way it is naturally supposed to.