The 22-year project to restore the Kissimmee River from a straight manmade channel to its natural meandering state has marked a major milestone.
Officials involved in the Kissimmee River Restoration Project said at an event Thursday that 44 miles of the waterway have been returned to its curving path in Central Florida.
The project began in 1999 amid evidence that converting the river to a straight flood control canal in the 1970s damaged the environment, dumping more polluted water into Lake Okeechobee, sharply reducing waterfowl and bald eagle populations and harming fish and invertebrates.
TC Palm newspapers reported that the Kissimmee River’s restored floodplains and oxbows will help clean water laden with nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff, which has fed harmful algal blooms, plaguing the lake for decades.
“Not only are we keeping water in the watershed and delivering it in the right volumes and frequencies, we’re also connecting with the floodplains where it cleans the water before it heads down into the lake,” said South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Drew Bartlett.
“From a (water) quantity standpoint, it’s a home-run,” he added. “From a quality standpoint it is, too.”
Now that construction is complete, the next step is to increase storage in headwaters lakes and mimic how the river once naturally flowed. That will be done by 2026, officials said.
“They have made a more resilient river,” said Shannon Estenoz, the U.S. Department of Interior assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “A river that is restored is a river that is resilient against external forces.”
This restoration is a 50-50 partnership between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District.
The effort has involved:
— Complete backfilling of 22-miles of the C-38 canal between Lakes Kissimmee and Okeechobee.
— Reconstruction of remnant river channels across the backfilled canal to reconnect and restore flow in remnant river channels.
— Removal of two water control structures.
— Additions of two gates to the S-65 water control structure.
— Acquisition of more than 100,000 acres of land to restore the river and floodplain.
“The credit for this unprecedented success rightly belongs to the countless hard-working men and women in both the Army Corps and the South Florida Water Management District,” Jaime Pinkham, acting assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works said in a news release. “While we celebrate, we are also reminded of the tremendous amount of work left to be done. President Biden has prioritized environmental restoration in the Everglades, including the largest budget request for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan since its inception. This administration, and my office pledge to continue our work with our Congressional allies to provide the necessary resources to fulfill our commitment here.”
Republished with permission from The Associated Press. The Florida Politics staff contributed to this report.