Kissimmee River was channelized to protect Kissimmee/Orlando

OKEECHOBEE — A common misconception about the Kissimmee River has to do with the reason the river was channelized. It is sometimes stated that the river channelization was part of a grand scheme to “drain the Everglades for urban and agricultural use.” That generalization can only be defended if “Everglades” means the entire area between Orlando and the Keys. Today, most members of the public think of the “Everglades” only as the area south of Lake Okeechobee — hence the confusion.

To be clear, the Kissimmee River was channelized to provide flood protection to the Upper Kissimmee Basin.

At the March 14 meeting of the South Florida Water Management District, Sean Sculley, administrator of the Lake and River Ecosystem Section, gave the new board members a short history lesson about the river channelization.

In the 1940s it was a very wet decade throughout South Florida, punctuated by 1947 where on average the water management district received over 70 inches of rainfall, he explained.

“These repeated storm events led to an outcry from the residents in the Upper Kissimmee Basin. This area was comprised of over 1 million acres which terminates at the mouth of Lake Kissimmee.

“As a result from the outcry for flood protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed and constructed an extremely efficient flood control project which evacuated the waters from the Upper Kissimmee Basin and delivered them very efficiently into Lake Okeechobee,” he said.

What was once a 103-mile meandering river with a vast flood plain that spread from one to three miles wide was turned into an efficient 30-foot deep, 300-foot wide, 56-mile long drainage canal.

The result of this project, water was conveyed efficiently to Lake Okeechobee with most of the water being confined to the channel to get the water evacuated as quickly as possible.

Even before the channelization was finished, environmentalists complained about the ecological damage. Some of those most critical about the river channelization were those who lived and worked around Lake Okeechobee. Phil Roland of Clewiston recalls his father protesting that the channelization would kill Lake Okeechobee.

The flow from the river basin currently makes up about half of the water entering the lake.

(The canal that connects Lake Istokpoga to the river contributes another 14 percent of the flow to the lake which also comes down the river.)

Thanks to the flood protection measures which benefit Orlando/Kissimmee, water enters the lake much faster than nature designed. As a consequence, some of the water has to be released. Again, for flood control, water is released from the lake in ways nature did not design.

The same flood control system that funnels water rapidly from the Upper Kissimmee basin into Lake Okeechobee, in order to protect the Kissimmee/Orlando area from flooding, sends water rapidly east and west to prevent Lake Okeechobee from rising too rapidly.

A further complication of the flood control measures: the fact the water moves faster means it is also higher in nutrient load. Before channelization, the Kissimmee River was responsible for only 3 to 4 percent of the phosphorus entering the lake. The river was the cleanest source of water entering the lake (not counting direct rainfall). Before channelization it took about six months for water that fell in the upper basin to make it to the lake, and along the way it was filtered by vegetation, and some of the water evaporated into the air or percolated into the earth to recharge the aquifer.

Another factor — the increase in the population in the Orlando/Kissimmee area, plus the tourists who flock to the theme parks, means more nutrient pollution flowing south. In the 1950s, Orange County’s population was around 114,000. According to the U.S. Census, the population of the Orlando/Kissimmee area is now about 2.2 million. In addition, the area attracts more than 68 million tourists a year.

That means more, dirtier water coming down the river into the lake and released east and west.

In 1992, the Water Resources Development Act authorized the Kissimmee River Restoration Project. Although Congress authorized restoration of the whole river, the project was quickly scaled down to a portion near the center of the original river.

Restoring more of the river will not be done because it could compromise the flood protection for Orlando/Kissimmee.

The corps is responsible for design and construction. SFWMD is responsible for land acquisition and ecological evaluation.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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