By WILLIAM M. HARTNETT
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Head west into the heart of Florida on U.S. 98 up north of Lake Okeechobee and, as you near the bridge into Highlands County, you’ll pass a road sign that’s either hopelessly optimistic or tragically out of date.
“Kissimmee River,” it announces in slim white letters on an interstate-system green background. Don’t let it fool you.
“This is not a river,” says Lou Toth, a South Florida Water Management District scientist, standing on a boat in the wide, deep and meticulously unnatural channel touted on maps and road signs as the Kissimmee River. “This is not a river in any way: biologically, ecologically, hydrologically.”
Toth would know. As chief scientist of a monumental $500 million joint state-federal environmental restoration project, it’s his job to make much of the waterway that is officially known as Canal 38 to look and act like the natural system it hasn’t been since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers turned it into a drainage canal 30 years ago.
Doing so will be no mean feat. Millions of cubic yards of earth must be moved. More than 40 square miles of drained wetlands must be re-flooded. One of Florida’s most notorious environmental boondoggles must be undone.
On Thursday water management district and corps officials showed off a stretch where they’ve done just that. During boat, airboat and helicopter tours of the first section to be restored, the contrast between canal and newly old river is striking.
Seven-and-a-half miles of channel from U.S. 98 north toward the Avon Park Bombing Range have been filled, the water routed back into the serpentine twists and turns of the old river. The wide wetlands that used to flank the river’s entire course from Central Florida to Lake Okeechobee are flooded again along this stretch.
Herons, egrets and other birds now wade in vast plant-covered tracts submerged under shallow sheets of water where just one year ago cows grazed on bahia grass in drained pastures.
“We can bring back these lost resources,” Toth said. “Nothing’s gone extinct along the Kissimmee. We just displaced it.”
And how. Almost immediately after engineers finished turning the shallow and winding 103-mile river into a deep and direct 56-mile canal in the early 1970s, scientists noticed a dramatic loss of wildlife. Wading bird populations dropped 90 percent. Three-quarters of the bald eagles that used to feed in the river’s floodplain also disappeared. And the number of largemouth bass and other sport fish species that made the river a nationally known angling spot collapsed.
There were other problems with the channelized river that form the headwaters for Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.
Land drained by the canal was turned into ranches, dairies and citrus farms, adding pollution to the water and sapping it of oxygen. When downpours struck upstream, the canal would send surges of nutrient-laden water into Lake Okeechobee.
The problems were so obvious, and their scope so far-reaching, that soon after the project was complete, scientists began researching ways to undo what had just been done. Those studies continued for two decades until Congress in 1992 authorized the restoration plan.
The road was far from smooth. In 1991 the Air Force even worried that a restored river would attract too many birds, endangering jets headed to its bombing range in Polk and Highlands counties.
Work on the first phase of the restoration didn’t begin until June 1999. Aided by the state’s record drought, construction work on that first section wrapped up in February. Engineers reclaimed 15 miles of the original river bed and 17 square miles of wetlands by demolishing a lock and filling 7 1/2 miles of the canal.
When all the restoration work is done in 2010, officials will have acquired more than 150 square miles of land, filled in 22 miles of the canal, restored 43 miles of the historic river path and reclaimed 41 square miles of wetlands.
All of which should wrap things up rather nicely for Rick Luna, an Okeechobee rancher and the assistant construction superintendent for the restoration. In the early 1960s, when he was just 11, Luna said he helped build the locks and dams that paved the way for the straightened river. Now, nearly 40 years later, he’s filling parts of the canal he helped build.
“Being a kid it was something different and exciting happening,” Luna said. “Later as a cattle rancher, I could see what it had done to the water. To me, it’s really exciting to put it back to its natural state.”
Copyright 2001 Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.
Palm Beach Post (Florida)
October 26, 2001 Friday
MARTIN-ST. LUCIE EDITION
SECTION: LOCAL, Pg. 1C
LENGTH: 759 words