Originating in the upper chain of lakes, the Kissimmee River used to flow south, meandering back and forth for 103 miles, and pour into Lake Okeechobee. During wet periods, the river would overflow its banks, creating a vast floodplain where waterfowl, largemouth bass, eagles, alligators, and a host of foliage thrived. This rich, marshland ecosystem was crucial for natural cleansing, acting as a natural filter and purifying the water and holding back sediment from washing downstream.
Historically, records show that 94% of the Kissimmee River floodplain were drenched for over 50% of the growing season. In fact, at times the water stood at depths over one meter deep in over 40% of the floodplain. Naturally, no matter whether it was a wet year, or a dry one, only the outermost edges of the Kissimmee Basin experienced consistent annual drying.
During the early years of settlement, up until approximately 1940, human habitation along the Kissimmee River was sparse. However, after World War II, rapid population growth occurred, as did an increase in cattle ranching and farming in the Kissimmee Basin.
In 1947, hurricanes and flooding caused prolonged flooding of land, including the surrounding cities. Citizens pushed for flood control, and in 1948, Congress authorized the Army Corp of Engineers to construct the Central and South Florida Project. Started in 1960, and completed in 1971, this project straightened the miles of meandering river into a 56 mile long ditch, known as the C-38 Canal.
Within two years of completion, Florida biologists knew a mistake had been made. There was a 90% decrease in the waterfowl, a 70% decrease in the Bald Eagle population, and largemouth Bass fisheries diminished. Effects were also seen downstream in Lake Okeechobee where fish and plants started dying.
Over time, the rapid delivery of storm water from upstream has continued to have a devastating effect on Lake Okeechobee. Without the natural filtration of the vast marsh and slow delivery of the oxbows, pollution from pesticides, manure, and other sources have been poured into the lake for decades. These pollutants ranging from phosphorous to coliform, have thrown the balance of Lake Okeechobee off. There has been a history of widespread algal blooms and at least one major fish kill.
Recognizing that this engineering decision was having a detrimental effect on the state, in 1992 Congress authorized the Kissimmee River Restoration Project in the WRDA Bill. Today, nearly 22 miles of restoration have occurred. Oxbows have been put back in, and habitat has been restored. Other flood control measures have been put in place to protect surrounding communities. This restoration is slated for completion this year. However, sadly, due to continued growth and development, the rest of the river will remain channelized.