The full title of this article by Douglas Main is “Deep in Florida, an ‘ecological disaster’ has been reversed—and wildlife is thriving.” Main reports on the reversal of ecological disaster along Florida’s Kissimmee Rive, which, he says, “has been restored to its natural state, a milestone worth celebrating—and learning from.” See full articles with photographs by Carlton Ward, Jr. at National Geographic.
If you’ve been to Disney World in Orlando, you’ve been to the Northern Everglades. Much of the water within the famous “river of grass” originates in Central Florida and flows south via the Kissimmee River—one of the more important and lesser-known waterways nationwide.
Sixty years ago, the Kissimmee meandered for more than 100 miles from the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes to Lake Okeechobee, and its floodplains were home to seasonal wetlands rich with life. But in the 1940s, in response to flooding and hurricanes, the state asked the federal government to help build a sprawling network of canals and waterways to drain the land.
The Army Corps of Engineers complied and, beginning in the 1960s, turned the meandering Kissimmee into a 30-foot-deep, channelized canal. Within a few years, populations of waterfowl dropped by 90 percent, bald eagle numbers by 70 percent, and some fish, bird, and mammal species vanished. The channel acted like a pipe, moving water quickly off the landscape to Lake Okeechobee, and then to the ocean. While that helped prevent some flooding in the short term, it robbed the stream of oxygen, which decimated the fish community and gave nutrient pollution no time to settle and be absorbed by the wetlands.
The disrupted hydrology and ecological problems were so glaring that, beginning in the 1990s, the Army Corps and a variety of state, federal, and local partners cooperated to undo the damage. More than 20 years later, at a cost of over $1 billion, the physical restoration of the river is now complete: 40 square miles of wetlands have been reestablished and rehydrated.
Already the biological impact of the project has become clear. As the wetlands have come back, so have the birds. “That response was immediate and pretty impressive,” says Lawrence Glenn, director of water resources with the South Florida Water Management District.
‘Triumph of imagination’
In all, nearly half of the river has been restored to its original state. The project involved filling in 22 miles of the canal, re-carving sections of the old river, and restoring 44 miles of the waterway’s natural meandering paths, according to the Army Corps.
“It’s a triumph of imagination [and] of partnership between the federal government and the state” and other organizations coming together, says Shannon Estenoz, assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks with the Department of Interior, who formerly worked for several different environmental organizations in Florida. [. . .]
On the water
To see the fruits of the restoration myself, I take a late summer ride down the river with photographer and National Geographic Explorer Carlton Ward, Jr., and Adam Bass, vice president of Conservation Florida. The first stretch of the river, directly south of Lake Kissimmee, consists of the old canal—300 feet wide and 30 feet deep, straight as a runway, with almost no birds or wildlife to mention. This part was left as a canal in part to prevent flooding in the Orlando area.
Passing through a lock to get the restored part of the river, the difference is stark and obvious as the river begins its natural flow. The abrupt edges are replaced by thickets and grasses and sabal palms and oaks—and we start seeing birds: herons, egrets, limpkins, and more. Surveys show that there are 50 species of fish in the Kissimmee, nearly 70 species of wetland-dependent birds, over 20 types of reptiles and amphibians, and four mammals that only live in the rehydrated marshes. [. . .]
It’s the rainy season and the wetlands are flooded, partially submerging vast fields of grasses and flowers. We pass dozens of alligators and bass fishermen. Though we are in crowded South Florida, there are long stretches where we see no people and hear only the sounds of frogs and waterbirds. This is still a wilderness. The river wiggles and bends and sometimes braids, leaving multiple pathways to choose from.
The next morning we wake before dawn and head out. As light creeps over the water nearly 10 snail kites—a subtropical species that’s considered endangered in the United States—fly overhead, many with apple snails in their beaks, large mollusks nearly the size of my fist.
These medium-sized hawks have striking red eyes and hooked beaks; the males are an almost bluish gray, with cream-and-slate undertails, the females a mottled chestnut and white. [. . .]
For full article, see https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/kissimmee-biggest-river-restoration-ever-completed?loggedin=true&rnd=1680874538026
[Photo above by Carlton Ward, Jr.: Adam Bass, with Conservation Florida, steers his mud boat through a restored section of the Kissimmee River. With 1,000 people moving to Florida each day and land rapidly being developed, conservationists are working to protect land surrounding the Kissimmee and in the Florida Wildlife Corridor for the benefit of people and wildlife.]
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