Jan 6, 2010

The Kissimmee River in Florida

We like to try and keep you abreast of the status of the important bodies of nature in our state of Florida since we are here and may hear more about what happens than non-Floridians.
Likewise if you are not in Florida and wish to inform of us developments about similar treasures in your state please send us a letter and we will post it on our blog.

The Kissimmee River is a perhaps not well known body of water that flows throughout many central and south central counties in Florida.

It had been gigantically changed by the Corp of Engineers at one time and those changes were afterward deemed harmful to plant and animal life along the entire route. So the state and feds decided to try and re-create the way it was before. That has now been accomplished and is showing signs of being a positive move. We congratulate them for these efforts and believe it shows that perhaps humans and non-human species may co-habitate in Florida if the humans set bounds that are not broken by development.

Here's the Orlando Sentinel update on the Kissimmee River from their respected environmental reporter Kevin Spear(1-3-2010)

OKEECHOBEE — Biologist Lawrence Glenn knows how to sell the concept of spending $1 billion to bring the Kissimmee River and its wetlands back from the dead.

On a recent chilly morning, Glenn whisked visitors on an airboat into the midst of the river's restoration. He cut the vessel's throbbing engine and waited for its propeller to stop turning and for the air to be still — sort of.

Speckling the blue sky and the green vegetation in all directions were storks, herons, cranes, roseate spoonbills, ducks and ospreys. Their honks, squeaks and peeps rose as a noisy conversation from the river's newly revived wetlands.

"This used to be cattle pasture," Glenn said.

Although the scene is about two hours' drive south of Orlando, it has a special significance for Central Florida.

Scientists are beginning to understand that the 40 square miles of reborn river and adjoining wetlands, once complete, will need a lot of water — water the Orlando area might eventually covet to quench the thirst of millions of future residents.

One of those scientists is Glenn, a fish biologist with the South Florida Water Management District and one of many overseers of the Kissimmee's restoration. His agency has calculated specific water needs for specific plants, animals and insects. But it doesn't take that kind of precision to comprehend the notion that a newly thriving wetlands needs more water than pastureland, Glenn said.

"We've counted 320 fish and wildlife species that have come back since we reconnected the floodplain to the flow of water," he said.

Ambitious project

The modern history of the Kissimmee River is one of colossal folly. Federal workers came in the middle of the last century with draglines to render 103 miles of serpentine waterway into 57 miles of straight and deep canal. That reduced the risk of flooding and converted thousands of acres of wetland into ranchland.

Yet almost as soon as that work was finished in the 1970s, a clamor began to restore the river, which flows south from Central Florida to Lake Okeechobee. Even then, ecologists knew it was far easier to wreck nature than to heal it.

District officials, describing their project as the world's most ambitious river restoration, estimate it will cost federal and Florida agencies $1 billion by the time land purchases and construction work are done in the mid-2010s.

Just the task of shoving all that earth around is staggering. In recent weeks, bulldozer operators finished refurbishing another six miles of river channel — and backfilling four miles of canal channel that was as much as 900 feet wide and 30 feet deep in places.

Backfilling the deep canal forces the Kissimmee's waters into the shallower river channel and spreads it across vast stretches of adjacent land.

Species are returning

While the deep canal and amputated segments of original river channel had been relative dead zones, the restored river channel flows with oxygen-rich waters that are reviving dozens of original species of insects, fish and birds.

As the river and the wetlands rehabilitate, the type of ecosystem that's expected to emerge is called broadleaf marsh. Dominate plants include pickerelweed, arrowhead and maidencane, all of which need to be more than wet — a healthy broadleaf marsh is flooded most days of the year.

The South Florida Water Management District is likely to decide this year how much — or little — surplus water can someday be pumped by utilities from the river's headwater lakes in north Osceola County.

Also coming this year is a transformation of nearly 1,400 acres of pasture, thanks to $18 million worth of the recent heavy-equipment work, as marsh plants reclaim their natural place.

"It's going to be great," Glenn said.

Kevin Spear can be reached at kspear@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5062.

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