Florida river restoration project marks 22-year milestone

SEBRING, Fla. (AP) — The 22-year project to restore Florida’s Kissimmee River from a straight manmade channel to its natural meandering state has marked a major milestone.

Officials involved in the Kissimmee River Restoration Project said at an event Thursday that 44 miles (70 kilometers) of the waterway have been returned to its curving path in central Florida.

The project began in 1999 amid evidence that converting the river to a straight flood control canal in the 1970s damaged the environment, dumping more polluted water into Lake Okeechobee, sharply reducing waterfowl and bald eagle populations and harming fish and invertebrates.

TC Palm newspapers reported that the Kissimmee River’s restored floodplains and oxbows will help clean water laden with nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff, which has fed harmful algal blooms, plaguing the lake for decades.

“Not only are we keeping water in the watershed and delivering it in the right volumes and frequencies, we’re also connecting with the floodplains where it cleans the water before it heads down into the lake,” said South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Drew Bartlett.

“From a (water) quantity standpoint, it’s a home-run,” he added. “From a quality standpoint it is, too.”

Now that construction is complete, the next step is to increase storage in headwaters lakes and mimic how the river once naturally flowed. That will be done by 2026, officials said.

“They have made a more resilient river,” said Shannon Estenoz, the U.S. Department of Interior assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “A river that is restored is a river that is resilient against external forces.”

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