After decades of construction, the Kissimmee River Restoration Project has restored 40 miles of river and floodplain and returned almost 25,000 acres to wetlands. The Army Corps of Engineers and partners at the South Florida Water Management District are celebrating this important milestone in Everglades Restoration with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 29.
The Kissimmee River Restoration Project is the largest functioning restoration project of its kind in the world.
“The conclusion of the Kissimmee River Restoration project is a historic milestone for Everglades restoration,” said Kelly Cox, Director of Everglades Policy for Audubon Florida. “This event highlights an important shift in Everglades restoration projects across the state as we transition from construction to operation. We are thrilled with the ecological benefits we are already seeing from these projects,” she added.
The Kissimmee River once stretched 103 miles in length, curving through Central Florida as a haven for wildlife, including at least 39 species of fish and 38 species of water birds. Its two-mile-wide floodplain was regularly inundated by seasonal rainfall, which provided important habitat to fish, wading birds, and other species. However, between 1962 and 1971, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) channeled the Kissimmee River and created a 30-foot deep, 300-foot wide, 56-mile-long drainage canal (C-38). This project drained approximately 50,000 acres of the Kissimmee’s floodplain wetlands, of which about 25,000 are being restored.
Following restoration, Lake Kissimmee 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. The river’s floodplain will flood seasonally and the river will meander again in order to replicate its natural path.
“This project’s primary goal is to restore the Kissimmee’s ecosystems, but it benefits everyone downstream as well,” said Paul Gray, PhD, Everglades Science Center Coordinator for Audubon Florida. “It will store more water during wet periods, provide more flow during dry periods, and the water in the river will be cleansed by the plant communities. Natural restoration in action,” he concluded.
Audubon has been advocating for the restoration of the Kissimmee River since channelization construction began. We supported the restoration when Congress authorized the project in 1992, and advocated for water reservation until eventual approval in 2020. Through it all, we have been a voice for birds and wildlife that have benefited from the newly restored river, as well as vocal proponents of how the natural channel will benefit flood control and water quality for surrounding communities.
“Birds are resilient,” says Audubon’s Vice President of Water Conservation Julie Hill-Gabriel. “They flocked back to the restored areas faster than we had hoped - if you build it they will come! This large-scale infrastructure improvement proves that ecosystem restoration holds benefits for both birds and people, and is an important water-resources investment for now and into the future.”
Wetland habitats of the Kissimmee River channel and floodplain now support at least 159 bird species, 66 of which are considered wetland-dependent during some portion of their life cycles.