a motorized canoe moves through a windy section of river surrounded by lush green wetlands

Deep in Florida, an ‘ecological disaster’ has been reversed—and wildlife is thriving

Much of Florida’s Kissimmee River has been restored to its natural state, a milestone worth celebrating—and learning from.

The Kissimmee’s meandering floodplains teemed with life before they were diverted into a straight canal a half century ago. A recently completed project has restored the curves—seen here—and replenished the wetlands. The waterfowl, raptors, fish, and mammals are returning.

If you’ve been to Disney World in Orlando, you’ve been to the Northern Everglades. Much of the water within the famous “river of grass” originates in Central Florida and flows south via the Kissimmee River—one of the more important and lesser-known waterways nationwide.

Sixty years ago, the Kissimmee meandered for more than 100 miles from the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes to Lake Okeechobee, and its floodplains were home to seasonal wetlands rich with life. But in the 1940s, in response to flooding and hurricanes, the state asked the federal government to help build a sprawling network of canals and waterways to drain the land.

The Army Corps of Engineers complied and, beginning in the 1960s, turned the meandering Kissimmee into a 30-foot-deep, channelized canal. Within a few years, populations of waterfowl dropped by 90 percent, bald eagle numbers by 70 percent, and some fish, bird, and mammal species vanished. The channel acted like a pipe, moving water quickly off the landscape to Lake Okeechobee, and then to the ocean. While that helped prevent some flooding in the short term, it robbed the stream of oxygen, which decimated the fish community and gave nutrient pollution no time to settle and be absorbed by the wetlands.

The disrupted hydrology and ecological problems were so glaring that, beginning in the 1990s, the Army Corps and a variety of state, federal, and local partners cooperated to undo the damage. More than 20 years later, at a cost of over $1 billion, the physical restoration of the river is now complete: 40 square miles of wetlands have been reestablished and rehydrated.

Already the biological impact of the project has become clear. As the wetlands have come back, so have the birds. “That response was immediate and pretty impressive,” says Lawrence Glenn, director of water resources with the South Florida Water Management District.

‘Triumph of imagination’

In all, nearly half of the river has been restored to its original state. The project involved filling in 22 miles of the canal, re-carving sections of the old river, and restoring 44 miles of the waterway’s natural meandering paths, according to the Army Corps.

“It's a triumph of imagination [and] of partnership between the federal government and the state” and other organizations coming together, says Shannon Estenoz, assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks with the Department of Interior, who formerly worked for several different environmental organizations in Florida.

Populations of popular game fish, such as bass, have climbed, in part because the water is more oxygenated and invertebrates that demand such conditions, such as mayfly and caddisfly larvae, have returned. Populations of wading and waterbirds are already above intended targets; some species that disappeared during the days of the canal—including ibis, bitterns, avocets, and sandpipers—are back.

The restoration is a grand success story that “shows it’s possible to act at the landscape scale, and [it] demonstrates how quickly ecosystems can recover,” Estenoz adds. And it’s vitally important for water quality and the threatened species that live there, including limpkins, snail kites, and bald eagles, says Congressman Darren Soto, whose district abuts the river.

The Kissimmee will become part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, thanks to an act sponsored by Soto and signed into law as a part of the 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act. The designation entails special protections and future funding for conservation work. 

On the water 

To see the fruits of the restoration myself, I take a late summer ride down the river with photographer and National Geographic Explorer Carlton Ward, Jr., and Adam Bass, vice president of Conservation Florida. The first stretch of the river, directly south of Lake Kissimmee, consists of the old canal—300 feet wide and 30 feet deep, straight as a runway, with almost no birds or wildlife to mention. This part was left as a canal in part to prevent flooding in the Orlando area.

Passing through a lock to get the restored part of the river, the difference is stark and obvious as the river begins its natural flow. The abrupt edges are replaced by thickets and grasses and sabal palms and oaks—and we start seeing birds: herons, egrets, limpkins, and more.  Surveys show that there are 50 species of fish in the Kissimmee, nearly 70 species of wetland-dependent birds, over 20 types of reptiles and amphibians, and four mammals that only live in the rehydrated marshes.

It's the rainy season and the wetlands are flooded, partially submerging vast fields of grasses and flowers. We pass dozens of alligators and bass fishermen. Though we are in crowded South Florida, there are long stretches where we see no people and hear only the sounds of frogs and waterbirds. This is still a wilderness. The river wiggles and bends and sometimes braids, leaving multiple pathways to choose from.

The next morning we wake before dawn and head out. As light creeps over the water nearly 10 snail kites—a subtropical species that’s considered endangered in the United States—fly overhead, many with apple snails in their beaks, large mollusks nearly the size of my fist.

These medium-sized hawks have striking red eyes and hooked beaks; the males are an almost bluish gray, with cream-and-slate undertails, the females a mottled chestnut and white.

Near the town of Lorida, we pull off at the Istokpoga Canal Boat Ramp—one of the only direct ways to access the restored part of the river, and meet Paul Gray, science coordinator with Audubon Florida. He also explains how the restoration project adds 100,000 acre-feet of water storage, which helps prevent flooding, and slows much of the water down, allowing nutrients to settle out.

One night, we make camp along the river, serenaded by tree frogs and katydids—and watch fireflies flash in an open field, mirrored by twinkles of lightning in a brooding storm cloud on the horizon. Camping in Florida in August is not for the faint of heart, though, as a self-regenerating swarm of mosquitos appears at dusk—the likes of which I’ve never experienced.

Back to the future 

When the channelization was completed in the 1970s, everybody realized it was a mistake. Locals had been against it from the beginning, explains Monrad Chandler, a longtime resident of the area, because “a lot of people used to make a living on the river.”

We’re sitting on a parcel of land he owns right next to the Kissimmee. His son-in-law, Matt Pearce, ranches on this land, where he practices rotational grazing—cattle are currently excluded from this area, allowing the plants to recover and grow back.

“When they channelized the river, there was no marsh no more … then no ducks, no snipe, [no] wading birds,” he says. “A lot of people had to change their livelihood.”

“It was an ecological disaster,” Gray agrees.

But now, those birds are coming back—and the restored section looks essentially the way it used to, Chandler says, fondly recalling hunting and fishing on the river as a youngster.

These restored wetlands provide corridors for larger wildlife such as Florida panthers and bears and habitat for endangered species, including grasshopper sparrows. By storing water, they also help prevent flooding during storms. (Related: How America’s most endangered cat could help save Florida.)

“The Kissimmee River accomplished an amazing feat last summer when Hurricane Ian slammed Florida,” Ward says. “It filled to the 100-year flood level and did its job naturally absorbing billions of gallons of water, with no loss of property, because of the restoration efforts.”

Yet there’s still much work to be done. About half of the Kissimmee consists of a canal, and there’s a big backlog of hydrological and research projects. One vital and imminent project involves raising the water level in Lake Kissimmee—and thus increasing water storage.

Gray explains that various areas of Florida—including Orlando—are running out of easily accessible water, draining the state’s aquifers. “These water projects are going to become more and more important for the future of Florida,” Gray says.

“This project is going to be saving water, going to be slowing it down—not only is that a benefit to wildlife, but to water management, and our ability to meet [our] water needs.”

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