Restoration? Not exactly ...

Posted 12/4/23

When it comes to Florida watersheds, is the term “restoration” misleading?

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Restoration? Not exactly ...


When it comes to Florida watersheds, is the term “restoration” misleading?

 In the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers channelized the Kissimmee River for flood control. This allows them to relieve flooding in Orlando/Kissimmee by sending the water rapidly south into Lake Okeechobee, as happened after Hurricane Ian. The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) website explains: “While the project delivered on the promise of flood protection, it also destroyed much of a floodplain-dependent ecosystem that nurtured threatened and endangered species, as well as hundreds of other native fish and wetland-dependent animals.”

In 1999, USACE began a project to put the curves back into the river and force water to spread out over the original river flood plain. While they labeled this project a “restoration,” they only backfilled 22 miles of the 56-mile channel. They “restored” the center portion of the old river, not the whole thing.  The project, in its limited scope, works – at least it does when there is sufficient water in the Chain of Lakes to keep the floodplain hydrated. I have seen the restored portion of the river firsthand. But I have also found many members of the public– and a few members of the media who apparently think the project the water has been pushed back into ALL the old oxbows. Perhaps they should have more accurately labeled it the “Kissimmee River Floodplain Partial Restoration.”

The same goes for the “Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).” The word “comprehensive” in the title could confuse the average reader. It sounds like the whole Everglades will be restored.

It won’t be.

The original Everglades started just south of Orlando. A true “comprehensive restoration” would mean all the developments south of Orlando would have to be evacuated, with the exception of the areas of high ground where the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes and the early Florida pioneers built their homes.

That’s not going to happen.

To restore even just the southern Everglades, millions of residents from West Palm Beach to Miami would have to leave.

That’s not going to happen.

What they are trying to “restore” is the flow of water in what SFWMD Governing Board Member Ron Bergeron often refers to as “the half of the Everglades we decided to keep.” The Central and South Florida Flood Control Project (C&SF), established in 1948 following the devastation of the Great Florida Flood, divided the southern Everglades into three areas. About 20% of the original southern Everglades was set aside for development. That’s the area between the East Coast Protection Levee (which provides flood protection for the area from West Palm Beach to Miami) and the Atlantic Ocean. About 30% of the land (directly south of Lake O) was designated as the Everglades Agricultural Area. There was already a lot of agriculture in this area. Farmers had been growing sugar cane and vegetables there since the 1920s.

In the years since the C&SF was established, the organization was transitioned into the SFWMD. That 30% of the original southern Everglades that was initially dedicated to agriculture has shrunk. About 25% of the EAA is now in public ownership. Some of that public land is used for the stormwater treatment areas (STAs). That 25% of the original EAA in public ownership also includes the area now in construction for the EAA reservoir and STA.

So that leaves about 22.5% of the original southern Everglades in agricultural use.

Meanwhile, the developed areas have been growing. One controversial development known as Las Palmas covers 8.5 square miles on the west side of the East Coast Protection Levee. Concerns about seepage from Everglades National Park into this 8.5 square mile area resulted in a seepage wall project that cost the taxpayers $54.5 million.

Intense development east of the levee has also increased the runoff from that area. Rainfall that would have seeped into the ground, recharging the aquifer, now runs off rapidly from streets and roofs, and is sent to tide.

USACE and SFWMD are trying to balance the demands of water supply for cities and farms, flood protection, the environment and recreation. The CERP water storage and treatment projects planned are needed. But perhaps it’s time to stop calling it “restoration.”

Kissimmee, restoration, Everglades