Storm damage sets back river restoration; repairs estimated at $11 million

OKEECHOBEE — Work on the Kissimmee River Restoration had a serious setback from Hurricane Irma in 2017, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still expects to finish the project in 2020.

Turbulence barriers were no match for the torrent of water rushing down the river from the upper Kissimmee after the hurricane dumped 8 to 12 inches of rain water into the basin.

A turbidity barrier was no match for the high volume of water that rushed down the Kissimmee River after Hurricane Irma, leaving more than $11 million in damages to the Kissimmee River Restoration project work. Photo by K. Elsken.

It takes 12 billion gallons to raise the big lake one inch. The storm runoff dumped so much water that it raised the level of Lake Okeechobee by a foot in less than a week, and four feet by the end of the month. As the major source of water to the lake, much of that runoff came down the river.

The surge of water washed out backfill used to fill in the canal in the area designated Reach 2. Fill dirt and sand now blocks access to oxbows in formerly restored sections of the river.

Some of the fill dirt washed downstream, contributing to the turbidity in Lake Okeechobee.

Hurricane Irma set the restoration back about $11 million, according to Jenn Miller with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District. But despite the setback, the project is still projected to be completed in 2020.

“As a result of Hurricane Irma, a significant amount of backfill was displaced in Reaches 2 and 3 resulting in approximately $11 million in damages for the Kissimmee River Restoration Project,” she explained. Surveys to determine the extent of the damages in Reach 2 backfill footprint are complete and the survey effort for Reach 3 footprint are scheduled to commence this month, she explained.

Repairs should qualify for funding under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, she added.
The allocation of funds under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 are still being determined, she explained.

On April 30, the corps headquarters announced the initial set of work to be accomplished with a portion of funding provided for disaster recovery in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. This included operation and maintenance funding for flood risk management projects.

“We will have better clarity on our path forward once additional allocations are announced,” Ms. Miller added.

On April 30, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) announced an initial set of work to be accomplished with a portion of the funding provided for disaster recovery in Public Law 115-123, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, signed into law Feb. 9, 2018.

Among other things, Public Law 115-123 provides $17.398 billion to USACE for disaster recovery in six appropriations accounts: Investigations; Construction; Mississippi River and Tributaries; Operation and Maintenance; Flood Control and Coastal Emergencies; and Expenses.

According to the corps press release, the initial allocation of approximately $360 million of the $608 million of appropriations in the Operation and Maintenance account will be used to address the highest priority needs identified by USACE at 32 projects in 12 states.

The funding for this short-term repair work is to be used for repairs to USACE projects damaged by natural disasters and to perform emergency dredging of shoaled material deposited at USACE projects by natural disasters.

“The short-term repair work will alleviate the impacts of the project damages and shoaling on human safety, flood-prone property, commercial navigation costs, ecosystem values, and other project outputs such as recreation, hydropower and water supply,” said R.D. James, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works.

Additional operation and maintenance work will be identified as information on damages incurred at USACE projects and the estimates of the cost to address those damages are refined.

The 2017 storm was not the first time heavy rainfall impacted work on the river restoration. The project was initially scheduled for completion in 2015.

Alligators can often be seen near or on the sandbars in the restored areas of the Kissimmee River. Photo by Katrina Elsken.

Kissimmee River historic timeline

• The Kissimmee River historically meandered 103 miles from Lake Kissimmee to Lake Okeechobee through a diversely-rich, 1-to-3 mile wide floodplain. During periods of heavy rains, the river would fill to capacity, sending the excess water into the river’s floodplain. Waterfowl, largemouth bass, eagles, alligators, aquatic invertebrates and a mosaic of broadleaf plants thrived within the floodplain ecosystem.

• The City of Kissimmee was originally a small trading post on the northern bank of Lake Tohopekaliga known as the community of Allendale. After the Civil War, this area was included in a purchase of 4 million acres of marshland and plains by Hamilton Disston, the owner of Disston Saw Company in Philadelphia. The sale price for the land totaled $1 million at 25 cents an acre. That purchase was credited with saving the State of Florida, which was deeply in debt following the Civil War.

• In January 1881, Mr. Disston contracted to deepen the Kissimmee River as part of his plan to create a liquid highway so products could be shipped from Kissimmee to the Gulf of Mexico and points beyond. Disston’s dredges connected Lake Okeechobee with the Caloosahatchee River, which allowed boat traffic from Kissimmee to Fort Myers. Mr. Disston was also involved connecting the Chain of Lakes with canals. Historically, the chain of lakes were connected by creeks, streams and sloughs, and water levels fluctuated with the seasons. The lakes were connected by manmade canals to facilitate transportation of crops.

• Steamboat captains navigated the chain of lakes from Kissimmee to the Gulf of Mexico with cargoes of cypress lumber and sugar cane.

• Although Mr. Disston’s canals aided water transport and steamboat traffic in Florida, he was unsuccessful in draining the Kissimmee River floodplain or lowering the surface water around Lake Okeechobee and in the Everglades. He was forced to sell much of his investments at a fraction of their original costs.

• In 1947 prolonged flooding from hurricanes inundated the Kissimmee basin as well as the surrounding cities prompting citizens to demand the government provide flood control.

• In 1948, the U.S. Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to construct the Central and South Florida Project.

• The construction of canals and other water control structures for flood control in the 1960s disrupted the natural water fluctuation and harmed the lakes and associated marshes. Development around the lakes and an increase in the nutrients flowing into them further disrupted the wetlands.

• From 1960-1971, the Kissimmee River was transformed from a 103-mile winding river into a 56-mile-long fairly straight ditch – 300 feet wide and 30 feet deep – known as the C-38 canal. The S-38 canal was cut and dredged straight through the original river’s meanders. In addition, six water control structures were created to manage flooding within the central Florida basin. As a result of this ditch-and-drain effort, the wetland-dependent flora and fauna that once thrived in the Kissimmee system declined drastically.

• Before channelization was complete, biologists suspected the project would have devastating ecological consequences. 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, as well as hundreds of other native fish and wetland-dependent animals. More than 90 percent of the waterfowl that once graced the wetlands disappeared and the number of bald eagle nesting territories decreased by 70 percent. After the waterway was transformed into a straight, deep canal, it became oxygen-depleted and the fish community it supported changed dramatically.

• In 1992, the Kissimmee River Restoration Water Resources Development Act was authorized that allocated funding to restore the middle third of the channelized Kissimmee River. The Kissimmee River Restoration is a 50/50 cost share project between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). The restoration involves using the material that was originally dredged from the river to fill in the ditch, as well as using weirs (barriers across the canal) to force water back into the old meandering oxbows.

• The Kissimmee River Restoration Project will return flow to 44 miles of the river’s original 103-mile historic meanders and restore about 40 square miles of floodplain. The restoration project – a 50-50 partnership with the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – is currently projected to be complete in 2020.

• According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website, 102,061 acres have been purchased for the restoration project. However, the numbers are a little more complicated.

According to the latest South Florida Environmental Report, the SFWMD needs about 100,000 acres for restoration. SFWMD has acquired 99,018 acres and is trying to buy an additional 1,300 acres. Some purchases required buying additional land because the landowners would not sell just the acreage needed for the restoration; to get the land SFWMD wanted, they sometimes had to purchase larger parcels. Since the purchases, some of that supplemental land has been sold off as surplus.

SOURCES: Florida Atlantic University, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, South Florida Water Management District,, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

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