Originating in the upper chain of lakes, the Kissimmee River used to flow south, meandering back and forth for 103 miles, before reaching 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, recharging the aquifer, and holding back sediment from washing downstream.
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 Corps 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.
Recognizing that this engineering decision was having a detrimental effect on the state, in 1992 Congress authorized the Kissimmee River Restoration Project in the Water Resources Development Act. Today, nearly 22 miles of restoration have occurred. Oxbows have been put back in, and habitat has been restored, but more work still needs to be done.
Learn more about the Kissimmee River here.