Officials from state and federal agencies gathered somewhere along the restored section of the Kissimmee River in Highlands County recently to celebrate the completion of the $1 billion “restoration” project. The public was not invited.
Restoration must be put in quotes because only part of the river has been restored. The rest of it is still controlled by locks and dams built in the name of the flood protection that got Congressional approval for the original project in the first place.
Politics and a lot of fudged data got the original project, which turned a meandering 103-mile river into a 56-mile ditch, approved in 1954. Ultimately changing politics and the environmental reality of what a bone-headed idea the original project was got the recently completed project approved in 1992.
The first Kissimmee River restoration meeting I attended was in the old Lake Wales City Hall sometime in the late 1970s, I think. The room was packed with local environmental leaders from, Sierra and other groups, boaters and anglers.
I learned from talking to the old timers that decades earlier local boaters had organized the Kissimmee Boat-a-cade to demonstrate what a great natural river the Kissimmee was when word first emerged that there was a move afoot to channelize it.
Nevertheless, the fix was in and to a certain extent the legacy of the original political decisions endured into the new project. The drained river gave ranchers additional free year-round pasture in the river’s historic floodplain. When the restoration project began, the taxpayers had to buy back what was probably originally state submerged land in the first place to secure the right to reflood land that seasonally flooded naturally. They did that not because it was right, but to avoid years of litigation over property rights claims that would have driven up the project’s costs and delayed its construction.
Nevertheless, anyone who has visited the restored sections of the Kissimmee River has witnessed the numbers and diversity of waterfowl and wading birds that have returned to their historic haunts. This is in stark contrast to the view along the unrestored sections, such the area just south of State Road 60, which are relatively sterile environmentally.
Sierra Club’s Ancient Islands Group, notably the late Richard Coleman, was involved in pushing for, supporting and monitoring the decades of work that went into planning and eventually implementation of what has been called the largest river restoration project in history.
By the way, the project also produced improved public access points along the river and elsewhere in the Kissimmee River Basin.
If you have a boat and haven’t been out on the river, but the trip on your list. If you visit the restored sections of the river, you won’t be disappointed.