A Call to Prevent Future Mistakes with “Wild and Scenic” Rivers

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Aerial shot of Kissimmee River
The decades-long project to restore the historic Kissimmee River was completed in 2021. (Screenshot of aerial tour via South Florida Water Management District)

by Trimmel Gomes, Newsservice.org

It took about $1 billion to restore Florida’s historic Kissimmee River to its natural state and U.S. Rep. Darren Soto – D- Kissimmee – wants to keep it from another costly mistake. 

Last year the Kissimmee River Restoration Project reached a milestone when it re-established flow to 44 miles of the river’s channel and restored about 40 square miles of its floodplain ecosystem. 

In the 1960s, the meandering river was channelized into a straight line to manage flood control, but it also caused significant ecological damage. More than 90% of waterfowl species disappeared. 

Soto said he’s trying to boost momentum for his bill that would designate parts of the Kissimmee into the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers System for added protections. 

“It will be harmonious with what’s already happening on the river now,” said Soto. “But it will protect the river from future major development or future alterations, which is the real big goal. And it frees up an ability to get more funding to help with other areas of the restoration like the habitat around it.”

Soto said even agricultural interests on the river welcomed the restoration after seeing extra flow of water. 

It’s been a multiyear effort to get the Kissimmee River Wild and Scenic River Act to pick up traction. Soto said he believes it’s just a matter of time, as he also works to engage the Biden administration for technical support on the bill. 

Garret Wallace is government relations manager with The Nature Conservancy, which has an 11,500-acre nature preserve at the top of the Kissimmee River watershed. 

He said everything is connected, and nutrients that may end up in the water travel faster in a straight line, but a slow and meandering river gives those nutrients a chance to settle. 

“Everything that we can do to help restore Kissimmee River will have positive net benefit on Lake Okeechobee,” said Wallace, “therefore we hope to have a continuing ongoing benefit to the Everglades ecosystem south of the lake.”

Now marshes of grass in the Kissimmee River’s floodplains will help clean the water from nutrients from rainfall runoff that typically feeds harmful algal blooms. But it’s a wait-and-see effort on whether Congress will move forward with granting the Wild and Scenic designation. 

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.