River rising, delaying work on restoration

OKEECHOBEE — As coastal residents keep concerns about the releases FROM Lake Okeechobee in the news, those who live along the Kissimmee River are more concerned about releases INTO the Big O.

Heavy rains in the upper Kissimmee River Basin have meant heavy flows down the river. Like the Big O, the Kissimmee River water level is rising.

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) has the authority to regulate flows down the river. However, due to the authority under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) can influence the water levels in the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of the Kissimmee River Restoration Project and of maintenance of the Herbert Hoover Dike, controls the water releases out of Lake Okeechobee.

Kissimmee River

Kissimmee River

On Sept. 9, the South Florida Water Management District issued a statement warning residents to expect water levels in the Kissimmee River Pool D to rise as a result of heavy rainfall in the  Kissimmee River Valley.

“Flows and levels along the river have been increasing. Water levels are expected to rise to approximately 28.8 feet (above sea level) in Pool D by Tuesday, Sept. 13,” the SFWMD release stated. “The S-65D Structure is located just south of the U.S. 98 North crossover bridge at the border of Highlands and Okeechobee county. Communities affected will be River Acres in Okeechobee County, along with Hidden Acres and Kissimmee River Shores in Highlands County.”

Since then, the river continued to rise.

“As a result of precipitation in the Kissimmee River Basin, we are currently experiencing high flows and water elevations in the Kissimmee River,” said Jenn Miller with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Monday, Sept. 26.

“We are communicating closely with the South Florida Water Management District about conditions in the basin and are working together to limit impacts to construction to the best of our abilities.

“The higher flows are causing construction work delays for MacArthur Ditch Backfill contract completion and it is also preventing us from removing boat barriers in the river that were put in place for the backfilling operations in Reach 3 that were recently completed. Once water levels subside, the contractor at Reach 3 Backfill will remove the boat barriers and signage will be installed to indicate areas safe for boating,” she stated.

MacArthur Ditch is being backfilled as part of the restoration project. The drainage ditch was constructed in the 1940s by ranchers to drain their lands west of the river. The ditch runs along the western edge of the floodplain and is approximately 50-75 feet wide and 3 miles long. Approximately 449,000 cubic yards spoil material (sediment) will be used to fill it in.

The wettest “dry” season on record, followed by continuing heavy rainfall throughout the summer has caused delays to the work on the river restoration.

Earlier in the year, a rapid increase in the flow of water down the river damaged work on the river restoration.

According to Greg Kennedy, with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), on May 21, SFWMD more than doubled the flow of the Kissimmee River from the S-65C gate just north of Pool D.

This gate is just north of the fourth phase of the Kissimmee River Restoration Project which was under way in the Pool D area at the time. The water pressure washed out an earthen berm that had been built across an area that was being backfilled, and washed out the fill that had been placed in the channel.

A turbidity curtain was in place to reduce the soil washing downstream but it could not withstand the water pressure, and it failed.

On June 29, responding to the algal blooms on the Treasure Coast, Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency. Thanks to that declaration, the SFWMD slowed the flow of water down the Kissimmee River by keeping the water at higher levels in the upper basin. Less water going into the lake helped slow the rise of the lake and reduced the need for discharges to the coastal estuaries.

But as the heavy rains continued, more water was again sent south to Lake Okeechobee.

Water is flowing in the Big O six times faster than it can be released through the water control structures in the dike around the Big Lake.

As a result of the rising lake level, on Sept. 23 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers increased the flows to the Caloosahatchee with a target of 4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) measured at Moore Haven Lock & Dam (S-77) located on the southwest side of the lake. The new target flow for the St. Lucie is 1,800 cfs measured at St. Lucie Lock & Dam (S-80) near Stuart. The St. Lucie Lock is 23 miles from the Port Mayaca Lock on Lake Okeechobee.

Water flowing through the St. Lucie lock is water from the lake mixed with local runoff.

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, the river was channelized by cutting and dredging a 30-foot-deep straightaway through the river’s meanders — the C-38 canal.

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.

After extensive planning, construction for the Kissimmee River Restoration Project began in 1999 with the backfilling of 8 miles of the C-38 canal. Three construction phases are now complete, with 12 miles of channel backfilled.

Continuous water flow has been re-established to 24 miles of the meandering Kissimmee River. Seasonal rains and flows now regularly inundate the floodplain in the restored area, as they did before channelization.

The fourth phase began in 2016 to backfill the C-38 canal from U.S. 98 Highway bridge towards the south to the CSX railroad crossing.

The final phase will include removing the S-65C structure (dam, lock and boat ramp) and backfilling from U.S. 98 northward. All construction is scheduled to be complete by 2019.

The comprehensive restoration project will return flow to 43 miles of the river’s historic channel and restore about 40 square miles of river/floodplain ecosystem.

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