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I have heard so much about Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River as being a central part of our water quality problems that I had to go see these bodies of water for myself. One cannot speak about the history of Florida’s wetlands without explaining the impact that the Kissimmee River, its’ destruction and subsequent restoration has had on the Everglades in South Florida and the flow of water throughout central and south Florida.
The Kissimmee River was once a 103 mile long meandering narrow river with a wide floodplain that spilled into it and sent water south to the Everglades. The rapid population growth of Florida called for the changing of wetlands into dry land to allow farms and towns to sprout up. As a result, the 103 mile river was changed into a canal called C-38 that is now 53 miles long, 300 ft. wide and 30 ft. deep. The 1948 destruction of the meandering river also destroyed thousands of acres of wetlands that contained thousands of species of birds, large mouth bass and aquatic plants. The state and federal government realized in 1992 the environmental and ecological damage that was done to the wetlands and decided to pass the Water Resources Development Act to restore parts of the river to it’s original shape and characteristics. As of today, the middle third of the river has been changed back to its meandering curved shape and floodplains/wetlands have been reestablished. Waterfowl, birds, fish and other wildlife are now re-inhabiting the wetlands surrounding this restored part of the river. The South Florida Water Management District which is partially involved with the restoration efforts has a good website to keep us informed of the progress of the restoration. The Florida Center for Environmental Studies has an excellent and brief summary of the history of the river. The picture taken above is of the river reshaped as a canal at its end where it is about to empty into Lake Okeechobee. You can see how the widening of the river into a straight canal has impacted Lake Okeechobee by flushing pollutants from nearby farms, cattle ranches and storm water runoff into the lake. When lake levels get too high, above 16 feet, billions of gallons of water are released into the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie Rivers which in turn affects the water quality in our river and beaches.
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