River restoration authorization still stands

OKEECHOBEE — In 1992, Congress authorized the restoration of the Kissimmee River — the whole 103 miles of the river. Since then, the corps scaled back the project to about 44 miles.

But the original authorization for the rest of the project was never rescinded.

That authorization hangs “like a black cloud” over the head of one basin landowner, according to statements made at the Oct. 6 meeting at the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) office in Okeechobee.

Roger Butler said he lives on the Kissimmee River. He said the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP) plans for wetlands restoration in the Paradise Run area just west of the Kissimmee River as well as an area farther north are cause for concern to his family.

“Back in 1992, Congress passed the Kissimmee River Restoration, which takes everything to Lake Okeechobee. They just didn’t fund it,” said Mr. Butler.

He said the state could go ahead with the rest of the river restoration at any time, as it was already authorized.

“This is a cloud that I and my family will have hanging over us,” he said.

Search for the truth about Lake Okeechobee

Matt Morrison, SFWMD Office Chief, Federal Policy and Coordination, said that while Mr. Butler is correct about the original authorized scope of the river restoration project “from top to bottom” that was approved by Congress, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considers the “finish line” to be in 2020, the projected end date for the river restoration phases that have already been funded. The partial river restoration has been done in phases and totals about 40 miles of the river.

The revised restoration plan did not include work on the river south of U.S. 98, said Mr. Butler. He asked if the wetlands restoration south of U.S. 98 planned as part of LOWRP are “going to back door into doing the whole Kissimmee River Restoration project.”

Mr. Morrison explained that before any additional work could be done, the project would have to go back to Congress for funding.

“What is currently being done on the Kissimmee River was a budget appropriation,” he said.

Mary Zehnder, of the SFWMD Real Estate Section, said it would taken an Act of Congress to rescind the original Congressional authorization for the complete restoration. She suggested Mr. Butler contact his elected representatives in Washington D.C. to ask that they go through the federal process for deauthorization of the portions of the river restoration that were not funded.

“I know if anybody decided to do it, you’ll bring the big checkbooks and I’ll move somewhere else,” said Mr. Butler.

Kissimmee River Timeline

• The Kissimmee River once meandered for 103 miles through central Florida. The river’s floodplain when inundated by heavy rainfall, reached up to two miles wide as the basin rainfall sheetflowed slowly south to Lake Okeechobee.

• In 1947 the state was deluged by rainfall averaging 100 inches along the lower east coast. Much of the ground was already saturated when two hurricanes hit the state late in the year, and flooding throughout the region was devastating. The residents of South Florida begged their elected officials in Washington D.C. for help; they asked for flood control.

• In 1948, the U.S. Congress adopted legislation creating the Central and Southern Florida (C&SF) Project, the largest civil works project in the country. Construction began the next year and continued over 20 years as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the current flood control plumbing system stretching from just south of Orlando to Florida Bay.

• In 1949, the Florida Legislature created the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District, the predecessor to the South Florida Water Management District, to manage the C&SF Project.

• Between 1962 and 1971, the corps cut and dredged the Kissimmee River into a 30-foot deep straight-away called the C-38 canal. The project achieved flood reduction benefits, but it also harmed the river-floodplain ecosystem.

• Even before the Kissimmee River channelization was complete, there were protests about the environmental damage done by changing the drainage system.

• In the 1980s, Governor Bob Graham launched the Save Our Everglades program, the first attempt to address restoration of the entire South Florida ecosystem. The Florida Legislature initiated aggressive land acquisition and water body protection programs, such as the Save Our Rivers program, to help preserve and improve lakes, rivers, wetlands and natural areas for future generations. SFWMD conducted the Kissimmee River Demonstration Project to test the feasibility of returning portions of the channelized river back to its original winding path.

• The early 1980s also brought concerns for the failing health of Lake Okeechobee. This prompted an advisory committee to develop a series of recommendations for improving water quality. The degradation of the lake was believed to be due to excess nutrient load. While the Kissimmee River had not been a significant source of pollution to the lake before channelization, after channelization the nutrient load increased significantly in the fast-flowing river.

• The Kissimmee River Restoration project was authorized by Congress in 1992.

• Between 1992-1999, the original plan to restore the entire river drew opposition from developers in the urban area who wanted to maintain the flood protection the channelization had provided, as well as from farmers and ranchers who had expanded operations in the Kissimmee River valley. The project footprint for the river restoration was reduced to about 44 miles.

• After extensive planning, construction for environmental restoration began in 1999. When the partial restoration is completed, more than 40 square miles of river-floodplain ecosystem will be restored, including almost 20,000 acres of wetlands and 44 miles of historic river channel. The current project is expected to be completed in 2020.

 

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

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