The death of the Florida Everglades was a slow process. This process began with an arguably beneficial plan developed by the United States Corps of Engineers to help stop the damage caused by frequent flooding and create more farming land. The flooding problems sought to be corrected by the Corps of Engineers occurred primarily in the Kissimmee River basin, a major river running south though central Florida and functioning as the primary source of clean water to the Florida Everglades.
When man proceeds to alter the natural order of things, however, man must recognize that he is dealing with a complex system where even minor changes can have major, unpredictable outcomes. The story of man’s changes to the Kissimmee River and the resulting damage to the Everglades demonstrates exactly what can go wrong when the system nature has devised is artificially altered. The Kissimmee River Flood Control Project of the 1960s and early 1970s started with the best of intentions; the relief of major flooding problems in the Kissimmee River water shed.
This project, however, is a classic example of how even good intentions can lead to catastrophic results when they are poorly conceived, planned, and executed. In this case, the well intentioned flood control destroyed thousands of acres of wetlands and wild life habitat and led to a major ecological decline in the Everglades. The Kissimmee River Basin was once a jewel of nature, breathtaking in its beauty and in its diversity and richness of birds, water fowl, and animals.
The river itself flowed through Central Florida from a chain of lakes just south of Orlando on a 103 mile meandering journey to the Lake Okeechobee on the northern edge of the Everglades (Boning 212-214). It was the largest tributary flowing into the lake and served as the primary source of fresh water for Gibbons 2 the entire Everglades system (212). The Kissimmee River, in its natural state, flowed through a marshy plain surrounded by extensive wetlands (212).
During the rainy season, “the Kissimmee would spread out over a 2 mile wide floodplain” (213). The richness of the Kissimmee in its natural form was well described in the following passage from the Kissimmee Valley Gazette in 1899: “There is no more pleasant way of spending a week than to take the trip to Basinger. Birds of all kinds are in sight the whole way; flocks of ducks, coots, herons, cranes, limpkins, curlews, plume birds and water turkeys without end. Also alligators, rabbits and water snakes and plenty of fish, too.
In its narrowness, in the rampant growth of water plants along its low banks, in the unbroken flatness of the landscape, in the labyrinth of by-channels and cut-offs and above all in the appalling, incredible, bewildering crookedness of its serpentine body, it is indeed an extraordinary river. ” (Alderson 75-76). The natural beauty of this part of the world, expressed so well in 1899, however, would be under severe attack from man less than sixty-five years later.
A unique feature of the Kissimmee was the fact that it flooded frequently and that the entire flood plain would be inundated with water for long periods, sometimes “ for twelve consecutive months, or longer” (79). This characteristic led to the entire Kissimmee Valley possessing incredible biological richness. “Flooding was the driver behind the Kissimmee’s high biological productivity”, according to Joe Koebel, senior environmental scientist for the South Florida Water Management District (79).
The long term inundation of the river basin provided excellent habitat for producing food resources for “larger predators such as large- mouth bass, wading birds, waterfowl and numerous birds of prey” (79). In addition, the slow moving sheets of water in the flood plain and the meandering river channel maintained high levels of oxygen in high quality, clean water, creating :”near- perfect conditions for aquatic invertebrates– the base of the food chain” (79). Over 41 species of fish (Boning 215), Gibbons3 aterfowl, river otters, deer, fox, raccoons and numerous other mammals and reptiles called this area of 45,000 marshland acres “home”(Boning 214-215). The frequent flooding of the Kissimmee and the ecological benefit to the entire Everglades system, which existed prior to the flood control project of the 1960’s, was described by Bubba Mills, a working cattleman writing for the Friends of the Everglades Newsletter in 1982: Once a year we would join our neighbors and gather our stray cattle which had crossed the river to Duck Slough or had stopped mid-way on the grassy islands within the river.
The cattle would be fat and the calves were always real good. We swam our horses from island to island until all cattle were retrieved and driven back home. We looked forward to this great venture each year. The river, swollen by summer rains, would flood the original valley and then take the excess waters to Lake Okeechobee for storage and use during the dry months. The sheet flow of water brought new life to the valley by destroying the unwanted vegetation and restoring fresh grasses and new growth for the coming winter.
This was nature’s way for providing a suitable place for birds, wildlife, and even man, to thrive. (Alderson 76-77). But, the continued flooding which gave life to this incredible ecosystem became the source of its demise (80). After World War II, large numbers of people moved into Central Florida, increasing pressure to find more upland for housing and farming (80). Although the Kissimmee always flooded, a 1947 hurricane as well as a series of floods in the chain of lakes at the northern end of the basin in the early 1950’s caused a public outcry and demands for action (Boning 213).
To address the flooding, Congress first authorized the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project in 1948, which was directed primarily to flooding south of Lake Okeechobee (Environmental, 2010). Subsequently, the flood control project was extended to include authorization for the Corps of Engineers to channelize the Kissimmee. Work on this project began in 1961 and the Corps completed the work 10 years later (Boning 213). Through this massive project, intended to protect life and property by flood control, the Corps straightened Gibbons 4 nd channelized the river, turning a 103 mile meandering gift of nature into an arrow-straight 56 mile ditch known as “Canal C-38” (Environmental, 2010). This canal was designed by the Corps to speed the flow of water to Lake Okeechobee and thereby eliminate the seasonal flooding of the Kissimmee basin flood plain (Alderson, 2009, pp. 80-81). The design was also intended to ease frequent flooding caused in populated areas by water backup into the lakes at the northern end of the system (81). The plan design was concentrated, however, only on the purpose of flood control.
No consideration was given to the effect that this work may have on the ecological balance of a beautiful, but fragile, ecosystem. This plan was well- intentioned and it worked, but the results, from an environmental standpoint, were catastrophic. As a result of the flood control project, the marshes surrounding the Kissimmee River were deprived of water. More than 35,000 acres of wetlands dried up (80) and were turned into pastureland (Boning 214). This massive loss of habitat stripped the entire basin of food sources, and wildlife disappeared almost overnight (214).
In addition, because the water in the system was “no longer being filtered by a slow meandering river channel through its expansive marshlands”(Alderson 81), water of seriously degraded quality filled with pollutants, agricultural run-off and suspended sediment flowed directly into Lake Okeechobee and into the Everglades (Boning 214). The water flowing in the system, oxygen poor and polluted, was dumped into the Everglades in abnormal amounts and at abnormal times, creating a “biological domino effect” with the result of harm to all wildlife and plant life in the entire ecosystem (Alderson 81).
Marjory Stoneman Douglas, perhaps the most famous of environmental advocates for the Everglades, and the author of River of Grass, considered by many as the most important book on the subject, once summarized the Kissimmee River Flood Control Project as ”wasteful and stupid beyond words” (83). Gibbons 5 The Corps of Engineers spent approximately $50 million to complete this “wasteful and stupid” flood control project (84). Much more would be spent to try and undo the damage this work caused. Even before the canal was finished, the loss to the ecological health of the region was obvious.
Activists began to immediately pressure the government for action (Environmental, 2010), but it would take more than a decade for any significant action to occur. Finally, when Bob Graham, governor of Florida from 1979 to 1987, announced his renowned “Save Our Everglades” program in the mid 1980’s, restoration of the Kissimmee River took center stage as the first step in the process. (85). In announcing his program, Graham recognized the critical nature of the work he was proposing as well as the high monetary cost of such work by stating: “We face an awesome truth.
Our presence here is as tenuous as that of the fragile Everglades… whatever the price, the price of inaction is higher still” (85). Despite Graham’s willingness to proceed, however, lack of federal commitment to the process would delay restoration further. In achieving restoration, Graham faced several obstacles. First, powerful ranchers and homeowners along the river organized quickly to oppose restoration, seeing the benefit to them of flood control (85).
Their organization, Residents Organized Against Restoration or ROAR reminded people of the devastating historical flooding and argued that “ there’s no way man can put it back like it was” (81,85). Second, the Corps of Engineers had no congressional authority to pursue purely environmental projects, and, third, the Reagan administration was unwilling at the time to spend any money to buy environmentally sensitive lands (85). It was only after Graham left the governorship to become a United States Senator that the Kissimmee restoration project gained federal support and ultimately became reality.
In 1990, Graham inserted language in a public works bill that authorized the Corps of Gibbons 6 Engineers to work on environmental projects, and then two years later was able to finally pass legislation authorizing the Corps to proceed with restoration of the Kissimmee River (85). Work began on restoration in 1999, and by 2010 the work is virtually complete. However, the project did not restore the entire river, but was essentially a compromise (Boning 214). The Corps backfilled 22 miles of the C-38 canal and restored only the middle section of the old river channel (Alderson 85).
Control structures remained at the top and bottom of the system to control flooding (85). Under this compromise, 43 miles of meandering river and more than 28,000 acres of wetlands have been restored (87). In addition, despite the limited nature of the project because of the compromise, it is the largest and most expensive true ecosystem restoration project ever undertaken, costing more than $500 million or approximately ten times the cost to ruin the river in the first place (87).
Although much of what was destroyed will not be returned to its natural state, the part of Kissimmee River Basin which was restored has shown a dramatic turnaround. Waterfowl and wild life are returning in significant numbers to lush marshland with vast stretches of native plants (99-101). In addition, the re-emerging marshes and the restored river flow have increased oxygen levels in the river resulting in dramatic increases in fish population and top of the food chain predators, such as alligators, large-mouth bass and birds of prey (101).
In short, restoration has been a major success in the Kissimmee River Basin. Since the entire river system has not been fully restored, however, the effect of the restoration on the overall Everglades system remains to be seen. However, the introduction, once again, of cleaner, slow-moving, oxygen rich water into the northern part of the Everglades system certainly will bring biological benefit to southern Florida. Gibbons 7 When the Kissimmee River flood control project was first conceived in the early 1960s the emphases was only on protecting residents from the threat of floods to life and property.
Although well intentioned, the project’s failure to recognize the environmental issues at stake resulted in severe damage to a fragile, interconnected ecosystem. The well hyphened plan and expensive partial restoration of the old Kissimmee River channel has reversed some of the damage, perhaps even dramatically in some areas, but much more is needed. The partial restoration resulted from a compromise of the competing interest of residents seeking flood stability and environmental activist seeking full restoration.
Against these competing interest, the odds of a full return to the past in is unlikely. The influence of developers and other business interests are simply too strong for environmental concerns to overcome. Even today, critics of the Federal Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan complain that: “Two much emphasis is being placed on flood protection drainage and water supply for agricultural and urban residents. The restoration of the …ecosystem, while mentioned in the plan, takes a back seat” (Alderson, 2009, p. 131).
Accordingly, it seems that the current plan for the Everglades is still suffering from the same narrow focus towards flooding that plagued the original Kissimmee River flood control plan. The lessons available from the Kissimmee disaster apparently are not being learned. Nature’s ecosystems exist in a fragile balance which is easily destroyed when man alters the natural state. Only when consideration of environmental concerns are elevated to a level of importance which is at least equal to development issues can situations like what occurred in the Kissimmee River Valley be avoided in the future.