Washout of earthen berm muddies Kissimmee River

OKEECHOBEE — Over the weekend, local resident Richard  Sweet noticed a change in the Kissimmee River.

Mr. Sweet, who lives near the river, said the water in the area designated by the South Florida Water Management District as “Pool D” (near Lorida) was moving faster and had turned the color of chocolate milk.

“It looks like sludge moving down the river,” he said. “It’s really an eyesore,” he said,

More worrisome than the unpleasant look of the water is the concern about the effect that muddy water could have when it enters Lake Okeechobee, he said.

The muddy water is apparently the result of increased flow into the lower portion of the river over the weekend, which washed out an earthen berm. The turbidity curtain could not withstand the water pressure and failed, sending muddy water downstream.
Greg Kennedy, with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said on Saturday, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) more than doubled the flow 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. The water pressure washed out an earthen berm that had been built across an area that was being backfilled, he explained.

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

Mr. Kennedy said a turbidity curtain is a floating barrier with weights on the bottom. Any suspended solids in the water hit the curtain and fall to river bottom.

The turbidity curtain failed due to the high flows, he said. A new turbidity curtain has been ordered, but Mr. Kennedy said they don’t know when it can be installed as the water flow is too still too heavy.
Mr. Kennedy said he can’t comment on any environmental impact the muddy water might have on Lake Okeechobee.

He said the contractors are working to repair the earthen barrier.

“It’s a bad situation,” he said. “All we can do is wait for the flow to recede.”

SFWMD’s Randy Smith said the flow at the S-65-C gate near Lorida was increased due to heavy rainfall in the Upper Kissimmee Basin.

“We had a tremendous amount of rain,” he said.

Just when the flow can be reduced will depend on the rainfall, he added.

“The recent weather has presented some challenges for crews working on the Kissimmee River project. One of the challenges with restoring historic flows comes with the placement of fill material in a canal that has been the primary mechanism for conveyance of water from central Florida for more than 40 years,” stated John Campbell, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Heavy rain events can produce high flows in the C-38 canal, which can cause issues with the fill material as the pressure increases. In addition to the heavy rains, the SFWMD doubled flows out of the S-65C spillway over the weekend, which led to additional challenges.
“The Corps and its contractor are working to address the situation as quickly as possible,” he added.

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, and 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 of construction is under way.

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

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