OKEECHOBEE — A crucial undertaking generations in the making, the Kissimmee River Restoration Project is showing progress.
“The Kissimmee River is part of the heart of Florida and key to the restoration of America’s Everglades,” said South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board Chairman Dan O’Keefe. “Through our partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we are restoring the river and protecting it for the enjoyment of generations of Floridians to come.”
The Kissimmee River Restoration Project was first devised in 1976 after channelization of the naturally curving river for flood protection had the unintended consequence of eliminating crucial floodplain wetlands and degrading the ecosystem along the river. The SFWMD Governing Board and Army Corps entered an equal cost-sharing partnership in 1994 to backfill 22 miles of the C-38 Canal and reconnect 44 miles of river channel to mimic historic flows.
“The on-the-ground benefits we are delivering with the Kissimmee River Restoration project truly exemplify the power of our federal-state partnership,” said Col. Jason Kirk, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Commander. “Together, we are successfully restoring the Kissimmee River to provide essential ecological and operational benefits to South Florida and together, we will bring this project to completion.”
So far, 14 miles of the canal have been backfilled, 6 miles of river channel have been re-carved and 24 miles of river channel re-established. In total, more than 15,000 acres of habitat have been physically restored. The Reach 2 construction contract, which includes backfilling 6.5 miles of the C-38 Canal and removal of the S-65C water control structure, is currently underway.
Work on the final phases of construction, including construction of the S-69 Weir, is expected to begin later this year, and construction on the entire project is expected to be completed by 2020. Upon completion of construction, a new regulation schedule will be implemented for water control structure S-65 in the Upper Chain of Lakes that feeds the Kissimmee River. The new regulation schedule will increase water levels in lakes Kissimmee, Cypress and Hatchineha to provide water volumes required for delivery downstream to meet river restoration goals once construction is completed.
Environmental monitoring, approved by the SFWMD Governing Board and conducted by SFWMD staff, shows that the work is already having an enormous benefit on the ecosystem. In Reach 1 of the restoration project, which was completed in 2001, concentrations of dissolved oxygen, a key measure of the health of the river for the recovery of fish and aquatic organisms, continue to meet or exceed expectations. Monitoring has also shown the growth and recovery of native bird communities along the river, including the white ibis, great egret, blue heron and waterfowl.
When the restoration project is completed in 2020, more than 40 square miles of river-floodplain ecosystem will be restored, including almost 20,000 acres of wetlands. The project will restore 44 miles of the 103 miles of historic river channel.
The state has acquired 102,061 acres for the restoration project — about 99 percent of lands needed.