Progress is being made in efforts to slow the flow and improve water quality in the Kissimmee River, according to information shared at the Lake Okeechobee Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) annual meeting on June 2.
The Kissimmee River Restoration Project, which restored the central one-third of the original river and floodplain, was completed in 2021, explained Stacey Ollis SFWMD Everglades and Estuaries Protection Bureau. The project restored the winding path of 44 central miles of the original river.
Hydrologic restoration will occur over the next several years, Ollis explained. The Kissimmee Headwaters Revitalization Schedule, which will increase water storage in the headwaters, will be phased in over the next five years, she said. This will better mimic the river's natural flow.
In addition, the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan (LOWRP) includes restoration of two wetlands areas south of the restored section of the river. The Kissimmee River Center project will restore 1,200 acres of wetlands. The Paradise Run project will restore 4,700 acres of wetlands at the southern end of the river, just north of Lake Okeechobee.
The Kissimmee Basin encompasses more than two dozen lakes in the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes (KCOL), their tributary streams and associated marshes and the Kissimmee River and floodplain. The basin forms the headwaters of Lake Okeechobee.
The Kissimmee River once meandered for 103 miles through central Florida. Its floodplain, reaching up to 3 miles wide, was inundated for long periods by heavy seasonal rains. In the 1960s, as part of the Central and South Florida Flood Control Project, the Kissimmee River was channelized by cutting and dredging a 30-feet-deep straightaway through the river's meanders: the C-38 canal.
After extensive planning, construction for the Kissimmee River Restoration Project began in 1999 with backfilling 8 miles of the C-38 canal. The project was originally expected to take about 10 years, but there numerous delays due to funding shortfalls and hurricanes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers celebrated the project’s completion on July 29, 2021.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, before the river was channelized, it took about six months for rain that fell at the river’s headwaters to slowly sheetflow south to Lake Okeechobee. Due to the channelization, which send the rainfall down a straight, deep path, that hydrological trip was reduced to just a few weeks.