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When country music artist, John Anderson, released his hit song Seminole Wind in 1992, his fans fell in love with it. Music is about storytelling, and Seminole Wind speaks of the Everglades’ history and ecological and cultural collapse.
“They made their plans and they drained the land. Now the glades are going dry.”
Anyone who has heard the song remembers these powerful lyrics. However, the true context was lost on folks that were unaware of the ecological damage that had been done “…in the name of flood control.” The Kissimmee River provides a cut-and-dried case study.
The Kissimmee River once snaked 103 miles south from its Lake Kissimmee headwaters to Lake Okeechobee. The river’s floodplain was a two-mile-wide wetland inundated by seasonal rainfall. This wetland corridor provided prime habitat for at least 38 species of waterbirds and 39 fishes. The life history of these species depended upon the wetlands.
The “flood pulse concept” is an ecological process involving seasonal flooding and inundation of the lands surrounding a waterbody. Flooding delivers sediment and nutrients to the land, opens spawning habitat for fishes, and creates breeding and feeding opportunities for wildlife. Seasonal flooding also replenishes the water table and shallow aquifers.
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As development spread through Central Florida in the mid-1900s, the Kissimmee River’s seasonal flooding became problematic for Florida’s economic growth. The state approached the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) with a request for assistance in draining the land for development.
Between 1962 and 1971, USACE channeled the Kissimmee River, creating a 30-foot deep, 300-foot wide, 56-mile-long drainage canal. This project drained approximately 50,000 acres of the Kissimmee’s floodplain wetlands and effectively ended the seasonal flood pulse. Within a few years, waterfowl populations dropped by 90 percent, bald eagle numbers by 70 percent, and some fish, bird, and mammal species vanished entirely2. Ironically, the canal system drained too well.
“It messed up our water management infrastructure. Now, we drain so much water that when it’s dry, we don’t have enough water 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”, said Paul Gray, Everglades Science Center Coordinator of Audubon Florida.
Beginning in the 1990s, USACE and its partners began cooperating to restore the Kissimmee River ecosystem. Coincidentally, Congress authorized the restoration in 1992 as Seminole Wind played through millions of FM radios and televisions.
More than 20 years and over $1 billion later, the restoration of approximately 44 miles of the Kissimmee River and 25,000 acres and 40 square miles of wetlands have been re-established and rehydrated1,2. The restored floodplain and wetlands now support at least 159 bird species3.
Re-winding a river is something rare and nearly impossible to accomplish, particularly at the scale of the Kissimmee River. Fortunately, in our modern world of “engineering with nature” and “nature-based solutions” to infrastructure problems, science and technology can cooperate with the environment to balance needs and functionality. The Kissimmee River restoration is the largest functioning restoration of its kind worldwide – something the USACE and Floridians can be proud of.