Brief History of the Kissimmee River

Centuries Ago…

The Kissimmee River historically meandered approximately 103 miles, sloping and twisting gradually to the south from Lake Kissimmee to Lake Okeechobee. Approximately 35,000 acres of wetlands once covered the floodplain.

The Kissimmee River floodplain protected a large and diverse wintering waterfowl population, including ring-necked ducks, American widgeon, northern pintail and blue-winged teal. The historic winter duck population alone was estimated to be approximately 12,500 birds. The wet prairie was the most important of the wetland communities for waterfowl. Under historic hydrologic conditions, wet prairies were typically dry from spring through early summer, allowing annual plants such as wild millet to germinate and produce seed. Fall and early winter flooding made wet prairies attractive feeding sites for both migrant and resident populations of waterfowl. White and glossy ibis were common in the grassy wet prairies of the Lower Kissimmee Basin. The floodplain also provided habitat for the endangered Wood Stork, Snail Kite, Bald Eagle and the threatened Sandhill Crane.

Named “Long Water” by the Calusa Indians, the twisting and turning Kissimmee River flowed slowly to Lake Okeechobee. Hundreds of years ago, the Calusa Indians found the Kissimmee River banks to be teeming with small game and its waters abundant with fish and shellfish. Calusa canoes could circumvent Lake Okeechobee and travel up the Kissimmee River into other tribal areas.

1940s

Prior to 1940, human habitation was sparse in the Kissimmee basin. Land use within the basin consisted primarily of farming and cattle ranching. The Kissimmee River was especially renowned for its largemouth bass fishing. During normal water conditions, more than 75 percent of the total fishing effort on the river was directed toward black bass. Other fish the river produced included black crappie, bluegill, catfish and redear sunfish.

However, rapid growth and development following World War II set the stage for extensive property damage when a severe hurricane hit the basin in 1947. The massive flooding during this period intensified public pressure for measures to be taken to reduce the threat of flood damage within the Kissimmee basin.

1948 - 1971

In 1948, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to initiate construction of the Central & Southern Florida Project for flood control and protection. In 1954, Congress specifically authorized the Kissimmee River portion of the project, which then underwent planning and design from 1954 to 1960. Between 1962 and 1971, the Kissimmee River was channelized and transformed into a series of impounded reservoirs. Inflow from the upper basin was regulated by six water control structures.

1971 – 1991

The physical effects of channelization, including alteration of the system's hydrologic characteristics, largely eliminated river and floodplain wetlands and degraded fish and wildlife habitats of the Kissimmee River ecosystem. The meandering river was transformed into a 56 mile long, 30 feet deep, 300 feet wide canal. Excavation of the canal and deposition of the resulting spoil eliminated approximately 35 miles of river channel and 6,200 acres of floodplain wetland habitat. Approximately 26,000-31,000 acres of pre-channelized floodplain wetlands were drained, covered with spoil or converted into canal. River channelization and degradation of the floodplain led to severe impacts on the system's biological components. By the early 1970s, floodplain utilization by wintering waterfowl declined by 92 percent.

1992 – Present

The Kissimmee River restoration project was authorized by the U.S. Congress in the Water Resources Development Act of 1992. The restoration project will restore an estimated 20 square miles of river/floodplain habitat iand 43 continuous miles of meandering river and will provide habitat for over 300 species, including the endangered bald eagle, snail kite and wood stork. The total project cost is estimated at $612 million. This cost will be equally shared by the state of Florida and the federal government. Most of the state’s fiscal responsibility lies in land acquisition. The federal portion of the project cost will be provided through annual budgetary appropriations.

Construction began in 1999 and is being implemented in four phases, projected to be completed in 2013. The first of the four-phase recovery was completed in 2001, filling in 7.5 miles of canal and resulting in 15 continuous miles of reconnected river channel and reclaiming almost 6,000 acres of floodplain wetlands.  The second phases was completed in September 2007, resulting in the backfilling of 1.8 miles of the C-38 canal, restoration of four miles of river channel, removal of three weirs and excavation of some portions of river channel.

Currently, more than 100,000 acres of land needed for the restoration and other purposes has been acquired.

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Sandhill Crane by Robert R. Mindick

Last reviewed: February 11, 2009