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The Kissimmee: A River Re-Curved

Oct 19, 2014
Originally published on October 20, 2014 3:19 pm

It sounds almost superhuman to try straighten a river and then recarve the curves.

That's what federal and state officials did to the Kissimmee River in Central Florida. They straightened the river in the 1960s into a canal to drain swampland and make way for the state's explosive growth. It worked — and it created an ecological disaster. So officials decided to restore the river's slow-flowing, meandering path.

That billion-dollar restoration — the world's largest — is a few years from completion. And so far, it's bringing signs of new life, especially on a man-made canal that was dug through the heart of the river.

"Birds are back, both wading birds and ducks. They're all over the place," says Paul Gray of Audubon Florida. "The oxygen levels in the river are better. There's a lot more game fish in the river like bass and bluegill and stuff. Most of the biological perimeters, the goals of the restoration we've already met."

The man-made canal begins near Walt Disney World in Central Florida and flows 50 miles south. "It messed up our water management infrastructure," Gray says. "Now we drain so much water that when it's dry we don't have enough water for our human needs. We overdrained, and so now we're trying to rebuild the system where we're going to catch water instead of wasting it when it's wet."

For decades, piles of dirt dug for the canal have remained heaped on its banks. Now bulldozers are pushing the dirt back into the waterway, filling it and making way for the river's old meanderings to re-carve their historic path. Five dams controlling the waterway's flow are being blown up, allowing the water to flow naturally.

The 20-year restoration effort is expected to be complete by 2017.

Defending The Water

The Kissimmee also is the backbone of the Everglades. It supports farming and the drinking water for 6 million South Floridians. The problem now is that Central Floridians are looking to the Kissimmee.

"Groundwater is not an infinite resource," says Joanne Chamberlain of the Central Florida Water Initiative, a group of state agencies, cities and utilities that together are examining how much water the region needs.

The group estimates that by 2035 Central Florida's demand will exceed its supply, which it gets mostly from an underground aquifer. So the group's members are considering other sources. One possibility they've identified is the Kissimmee's headwaters.

"There's opportunities under certain situations that water can be used — high-water-level situations where that water could be taken, stored and used for other purposes," Chamberlain says.

She means during the summer wet season, when Florida receives the bulk of its rain.

"Florida is not like any other state in the union. We revolve around our water so greatly, not just as a drinking source but as a source of recreation and as source of tourism," says Chuck O'Neal, chairman of the natural resources committee of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

The group supports a state constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would put more money toward land and water conservation, including the Kissimmee.

Other environmentalists hope to protect the Kissimmee's water with a unique legal tool called a water reservation, which would set aside a certain amount of water so utilities can't have it for consumer use.

"The future is going to be trying to defend the water, to make sure the river has the proper hydrology," Gray says.

Cynthia Barnett, a Florida author who writes about water issues, says, "The key for the future is to learn from those past mistakes and now do things differently. Instead of clashing all the time the idea is to work together to use less."

She says the Kissimmee is a lesson — that Floridians don't need more water and environmentalists, utilities and farmers together can work toward a future of conservation.

Copyright 2017 WMFE. To see more, visit WMFE.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It sounds almost superhuman to try to straighten a river and then re-carve the curves, but that is exactly what federal and state officials did to the Kissimmee River in central Florida. They straightened much of the river in the 1960s into a canal to drain swampland and make way for the state's explosive growth. It worked - and it created an ecological disaster. Officials then decided to restore the river and its meandering path. That billion dollar restoration is a few years from being completed. But as Amy Green of member station WMFE in Orlando reports, the river once again faces an uncertain future.

AMY GREEN, BYLINE: Paul Gray of Audubon, Florida is in an airboat on a canal framed by scrubland and palm trees. A cornflower blue sky is streaked with birds like white ibis and snowy egrets. The craggy heads of alligators float on the surface. They are all signs of a new life for the Kissimmee River.

PAUL GRAY: Birds are back, both wading birds and ducks. They're all over the place. The oxygen levels in the river are better. There's a lot more game fish in the river like bass and bluegill and stuff. Most of the biological parameters, the goals and restoration we've already met.

GREEN: The man-made canal was dug through the heart of the Kissimmee. It begins near Walt Disney World in central Florida and flows 50 miles south.

GRAY: It messed up our water mains and infrastructure. Now we drain so much water that when it's dry, we don't have enough water left for our human needs. We over drained, and so now we're trying to rebuild the system where we're going to catch water instead of wasting it when it's wet.

GREEN: Piles of dirt dug for the canal remain heaped on its banks. Bulldozers are pushing the dirt back into the canal, filling it and making way for the river's old meanders to re-carve their historic path. Five dams controlling the waterway's flow are being blown up, allowing the water to flow naturally. The Kissimmee also is the backbone of the Everglades. It supports farming and the drinking water for 6 million south Floridians. The problem is now, central Floridians are looking to the Kissimmee.

JOANNE CHAMBERLAIN: Groundwater is not an infinite resource.

GREEN: That's Joanne Chamberlain of the Central Florida Water Initiative. It's a group of state agencies, cities and utilities, who together are examining how much water the region needs. The group estimates by 2035 Central Florida's demand will exceed its supply, which it gets mostly from an underground aquifer. So the group's members are considering other sources. One possibility they've identified is the Kissimmee's headwaters.

CHAMBERLAIN: There's opportunities under certain situations that water can be used - so high-water level situations where that water could be taken, stored and used for other purposes.

GREEN: She means some water could be used for consumers during the summer wet season when Florida receives the bulk of its rain.

CHUCK O'NEAL: Florida is not like any other state in the union. We revolve around our water so greatly, not just as a drinking source but as a source of recreation and a source of tourism.

GREEN: Chuck O'Neal is chairman of the natural resources committee at the League of Women Voters of Florida. The group supports a state constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would put more money toward land and water conservation, including the Kissimmee.

Other environmentalists hope to protect the Kissimmee's water with a unique legal tool called a water reservation, which would set aside a certain amount of water so utilities can't have it for consumer use. Here's Paul Gray of Audubon, Florida.

GRAY: The future is going to be trying to defend the water, to make sure the river has a proper hydrology.

CYNTHIA BARNETT: The key for the future is to learn from those past mistakes and now do things differently instead of clashing all the time.

GREEN: That's Cynthia Barnett, a Florida author who writes about water issues.

BARNETT: The idea is to work together to use less. And I really - I see that happening already and I think that's what will happen if we put our mind to it.

GREEN: She says that environmentalists, utilities, and farmers together can work toward a future of conservation. For NPR News, I'm Amy Green in Orlando.

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.