Recent headlines have applauded the success of the complete restoration of the Kissimmee River in Florida. In 1962, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers began straightening the once 103-mile river in an attempt to provide flood protection to developing lands in the area surrounding the floodplain. However, almost immediately, the landscape began to experience significant losses in biodiversity, as well as changes to the natural hydrological cycle. The once prevalent waterfowl saw a 90% decrease in its population, and the bald eagle’s nesting territory had decreased by over 70%. Furthermore, the channelization of the river removed so much dissolved oxygen that it decreased the amount of aquatic life that the river had previously supported.
Kissimmee River Restoration: Undoing the Past
In 1999, the Army Corps of Engineers returned to Kissimmee River to undo what they had done decades before and return the river’s natural meanders. These meanders are important as they minimize the amount of work done to keep the river flowing at a constant velocity. In 2021, the project was completed and restored 40 square miles of floodplain area, 20,000 acres of wetlands, and 44 miles of the river.
Optimism About the River
While it will take some time for the river ecosystem to completely recover back to its original state, scientists are optimistic of the benefits the restoration project will bring. A few expectations they hope to see include continuous river channel flow, higher dissolved oxygen concentrations, increased channel bed deposits, normal turbidity and suspended solids concentrations, greater plant community structure, and increased wildlife population levels. The project is also expected to remove about 3 inches of water from Lake Okeechobee, improve water quality, and provide flood protection.
Since its completion, the surrounding ecosystems have already seen returning fish and bird populations. As the years go by, the biodiversity of the area will continue to increase, allowing the ecosystem to be self-sufficient and resilient to future changes.
The Future of the River
Looking towards the future, lawmakers are hoping to have similar success in restoring the Everglades in South Florida. After the swamp-land was drained decades ago to make way for development, the ecosystem has suffered immense losses in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Restoring the Everglades is a demanding task as it is projected to cost about $23 billion and take until 2050 to be completed. Nonetheless, restoring the ecosystem would bring back native wildlife populations as well as provide clean water and flood control to the area, an especially important service as hurricanes become increasingly intense.
Ultimately, the Kissimmee River restoration project serves as a model for how humans can fix their environmental mistakes and work towards a healthier ecosystem that benefits nature and humans.