Kissimmee River Makes a Comeback

     The Kissimmee River in south-central Florida is an environmental success story.  In a way.  

     The story of the Kissimmee is an example of humans ruining a river and then working hard to restore it again.  

     The Kissimmee River originally meandered this way and that, along a wide, shallow path from Lake Kissimmee southward to Lake Okeechobee.  The river’s 50,000 acre floodplain supported numerous and diverse wetland communities–birds, fish, and a wide variety of other wildlife.

     But in the early 1960s the Kissimmee River fell victim to a program that was popular at the time–river ‘straightening.’  In an attempt to avoid major flooding during hurricane events and to enable people to build homes and other buildings in a floodplain without fear of floods, many rivers during the 1960s were channelized;  they were straightened and deepened.  The Kissimmee was one such river.  Its meanders were sliced off, a deep-channel canal was dredged along the Kissimmee Valley, and the once winding, 103 mile-long river was transformed into a straight, 56-mile long, lifeless gutter.    Even the name was changed.  The former Kissimmee River became the C-38. 

     The goal of keeping the river out of the floodplain was largely achieved.  But at a great price.  Water that had once slowly wound its way southward, now shot through the trench and poured, unsettled and unfiltered,  into Lake Okeechobee.  C-38 was an inhospitable place to the many fish that had inhabited it.  The surrounding wetlands dried up and the birds disappeared.

     “The folly of ditching the Kissimmee River was recognized almost the day it was completed,” states the Everglades Foundation on its website, “and the magnitude of the ecological crisis led to a public outcry.”  In 1992, Congress approved a plan to restore the Kissimmee River.  The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct the restoration.

     While the restoration project won’t bring the entire river back to its original health, normal flow is being returned to more than 40 miles of the river’s historic channel, and about 40 square miles of the river/floodplain ecosystem will be restored.

     Restoration efforts got underway in 1999, and the results have been inspiring.  “Recovery of wetland function was much faster than expected,” according to the Everglades Foundation, “with rapid recolonization by native plants and animals.  The Kissimmee Restoration  is a true Florida environmental success story three decades in the making.”  Almost right away,   shorebirds returned.  So did ducks, songbirds and wading birds.  Aquatic invertebrates like insects, mollusks, crayfish, and freshwater shrimp again inhabited the river, and the river became home once again to fish and alligators.  

     Unfortunately, I cannot end our story here.  While I salute former Floida Republican governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist for their strong support for restoration efforts, the current governor, Tea Partier Rick Scott, elected in 2010, has been working to slash funds for restoration efforts and has tried to get the EPA to relax clean water regulations that affect the Kissimmee River.  If the investment by the public of more than $3 billion in state and federal funds to restore the Kissimmee River are not to be wasted, we must hope that Scott (currently out of favor with his Tea Party base) will be a one-term governor. April Moore  


a restored section of Floridas Kissimmee River

a restored section of Florida's Kissimmee River





2 Responses to “Kissimmee River Makes a Comeback”

  1. Tanya Says:

    What a bittersweet saga!

  2. judy Says:

    A most interesting and unusual story. Tragic, ridiculous, wonderful, and now??

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