Leading up to 2024’s “100 year anniversary of the St. Lucie Canal,” Ed and I visited the State Archives of Florida in Tallahassee. We had called ahead and the archivist had set all aside having to do with the “Final Report on the Special Project to Prevent Eutrophication of Lake Okeechobee.”This very important document, published in November of 1976, was key in directly and indirectly improving the situation of the St. Lucie River and all the Everglades. Its research faced head on the deteriorating health of Lake Okeechobee; documented the importance of Kissimmee River restoration for nutrient reduction and water quality; called for the halting of back-pumping into Lake Okeechobee from the Everglades Agricultural Area south of the lake; and even inquires implementation of Best Management Practices by the Agriculture industry and stricter rules for sewage management from developing cities.
The seven pages of the document I share today is from the summary and is part of the lead up to the Final Report. As is always the case, the final report is much more polished. The seven pages of the 1975 “A Summary of Progress of the Special Project to Prevent the Eutrophication of Lake Okeechobee,” is not. You will see handwritten corrections and notes in the margins. A very powerful way to view a working document. “Old school” for sure!
Forty-eight years have passed since this homework led to the famous 1976 publication “The Final Report on the Special Project to Prevent Eutrophication of Lake Okeechobee.” The working document’s historic value cannot cannot be underestimated. Reading it is like looking back into the mirror of time. Here is reflected how much progress has been made, and how much more still needs to be achieved.
“Lake Okeechobee water quality has been declining noticeably for about twenty years, and the is now best be described as culturally eutrophic…” ~1975
Aerial, Kissimmee River restoration, Gary Goforth, 2-9-20
My most recent blog post included the above photograph of Kissimmee River Restoration north of Lake Okeechobee taken by Dr Gary Goforth. My mother, Sandy Thurlow, commented: “ I would so like for Dr. Goforth to explain what we are seeing in his aerial of the restoration of the Kissimmee River.”
I wrote Gary on behalf of my mother and he provided such comprehensive and helpful insight that today I am sharing not just for my mother, but for everyone! Please read below.
When time allows my mother was hoping to get an explanation of the wonderful Kissimmee River restoration photo you shared in my blog post. Could you please write something? Thank you so much.
The Kissimmee River Restoration (KRR) Project is one of my favorite projects on the planet!In the 1960s, the historic 105-mile meandering Kissimmee River was transformed into a 56-mile ditch by the Corps of Engineers at the request of the State of Florida to help relieve flooding upstream.Public activism convinced Gov. Bob Graham to support restoration of the River in the 1980s, and as a US Senator he was instrumental in having Congress authorize the Corps to proceed with restoration.The SFWMD was way out ahead of the Corps (again) and had completed several phases of engineering design and prototype testing.The initial backfilling of the C-38 Canal was begun in 1999, and when completed later this year, the project will re-establish flow in 40 miles of the old river and rehydrate about 12,400 acres of former wetlands that were over-drained by the canal.
There are many reasons I love the picture taken Sunday as Ed was flying Mark and I north of the Lake:
·In the foreground of the photo you see a section of the meandering restored Kissimmee River!The construction work in this section of the river consisted of backfilling the 300-ft wide and 30-ft deep canal.It also included “re-carving” some sections of river channel that were destroyed during C-38 canal construction.This work has routed water to the native channel and floodplain of the Kissimmee River, and reestablished hydrologic continuity between the river and floodplain for the first time since the C-38 canal was completed in 1971!How amazing!
·The photo also shows smaller secondary river channels and a colorful mosaic of wetlands on their way to restoration!What has been amazing is that despite almost 50 years of over-drainage, there are tens of thousands (maybe millions) of resilient seeds of the former marsh vegetation in the soil that have regenerated upon reflooding!This is truly amazing!
·The photo shows the restoration area known as Phase II, located roughly in the middle of the KRR project.This phase is almost complete, with the remaining canal backfilling to be completed later this year.By the way, the balance of the restoration project should also be completed this year!!!
·The left hand side of the photo, where the road crosses the floodplain, shows the location of what was the water control structure and navigation locks known as S-65C.As part of the restoration project, structure S-65C was demolished in 2017.For spatial reference, the old structure was located about 5 miles upriver from the Hwy 98 bridge and about 23 miles upstream of where the C-38 canal empties into the Lake.About 30 miles to the north (left in the photo) is where the C-38 Canal exits Lake Kissimmee.
·A Google Earth image taken in 2017 is attached below.This image shows the S-65C structure prior to demolition.
·In the photo taken on Sunday you can see the footprint of the backfilled C-38 canal in the center of the photo – on either side of the rectangular open water. You’ll need to zoom in to make out this detail since the inundated floodplain has almost covered up the former canal footprint!
It was Earth Day yesterday, and my eyes filled with tears as I walked into the Citrus Grove Elementary School classroom. I had been invited to see the graduation of River Kidz for Mrs Jacobson’s second grade class. Once I opened the door, the students were waiting and some took me by the hand sitting me down; they were so exited to show me what they had been learning, and how they were all working to grow up and save the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.
“This is different.” I thought to myself….”in years past, I would take control of the classroom, but now the kids are taking control of me!”
I watched the classroom dynamics. It was not” top down; ” it worked in both directions: Mrs Jacobsen assisting her students while they in turn assisted her— working together.
While the presentation was prepared, one boy excitedly told me about how the class had built this model of the Kissimmee River to represent what it looked like before it was channelized, “straightened,” by the Army Corp of Engineers between 1960-1971. He also explained “this is one of the things hurting our river…”
He shared that the board painted green was the floodplain’s vegetation, and the plastic tube that weaved and oxbowed, like a snake, was the original river; a cup of water filled with glitter represented nitrogen and phosphorus-what feeds toxic algae blooms in our rivers. This water-glitter concoction would be poured through the tube, (the river) and the extra “nutrient” or fertilizer, would end up in a plastic brown container at the bottom of the tube representing Lake Okeechobee.
We stared with great amazement and observed how because of the oxbows, most of the glitter, was caught in the winding shape, and just a little ended up running through the tube. Students discussed how if the tube were straight, of course all of the green glitter-water would “just shoot down into Lake Okeechobee.”
“This is why the ACOE is fixing some of the river “oxbowey” again…Making the river strait was a bad idea….” 🙂
More complex that this? Of course. But does this help a second grader start to “get it?”
What a visual! How awesome! I was more than impressed…
As the morning went on, we there was a presentation from the “Dolphin Lady,” Nic Mader, and the students showed their artwork, letters to Congressman Murphy, and chart on the white board counting down days left for the Florida Legislature to purchase land south of the lake.
Hoy Cow! —–No, Holy River!
The River Kidz program is in Martin County schools and with the help of great teachers and wonderful students, it’s creating excitement, understanding, empowerment, and responsibility for a better water future. A future for which we can all be proud…
Last week, on a hazy smoked filled afternoon, Ed and I flew over Lake Okeechobee and the once mighty Kissimmee River. There was the normal stress involved with me giving Ed directions and the fun of an adventure. It went something like this:
“Oh there it is, the Kissimmee’s opening to the lake, over there!”
I can’t fly north of “over there,” it’s off limits; it’s a near a bombing range or air force base…” says Ed, shooting me a serious glance.
“What a bombing range-air force base? You’re kidding, close to of some of the state’s richest wildlife habitat? How symbolic…”
Ed rolls his eyes, I can feel it. But he tries harder…
Somehow, Ed talks to Miami Air Traffic Conrol and we get lucky. It is a Sunday and we are allowed to fly over at least part of the area I wish to see.
On the way, we fly over the southwest area of the lake’s agricultural lands. The hand of humankind is reflected in organized, perfect sized boxes of agriculture and straight canals.
We veer off to the northwestern area of the Lake Okeechobee where earth and water meet; on this side of the lake the hand of the Creator still evident. Little specks of light blend together in a blinding symphony of light.
We near the area in Okeechobee County where the mouth of the once great Kissimmee meets Lake Okeechobee. The straightened canal looks out of place among the lush greenery and a small town is evident. There are people here. Flooding is an issue.
It is great seeing “it all” from above as I have never really been able to figure out on a map where the Kissimmee River restoration is happening. It starts about 20 miles north of the lake.
The Kissimmee river was once 103 miles of wildlife/fish filled meandering oxbows, but it was canalized to a depth of 30 feet as C-38 from 1962-71. This was part of the Army Corp of Engineers and the Central and South Florida “Flood Control Project” of 1954. The state had asked for help after two back to back hurricanes and wide spread flooding and destruction in 1945. The state got help but with untended consequences…
The Kissimmee River that once meandered south to Lake Okeechobee as part of a two mile wide flood plane now shot down to the lake with grave environmental effects that included the destruction of the estuaries, St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon and Caloosahatechee.
Since 1994, around 23 miles of the now 56 mile long canal, C-38, from Lake Kissimmee to Lake Okeechobee has been/is being backfilled and considered part of “the” most ambitious environmental restoration project in the world.
Recently, the ACOE and SFWMD have been in a dispute over the completion of the restoration project. The project is tremendously expensive requiring federal and state funding which has not come easy since 2008. The two agencies “cost share” in its completion. Word is they are “working things out…”
The long term goal is to continue the restoration of at least 20 miles more of the 56 miles of the canal.
In light of the dying Indian River Lagoon, it is important to see that restoration can be accomplished. Mother Nature is quick to rebound once given the chance.
The Kissimmee’s restoration is critical, as the polluted waters coming from Orlando south carry sediment, and urban and agricultural runoff into the lake. As we know, when the lake gets too full the water is diverted to the estuaries because the water is not presently allowed to flow south, as the EAA (Everglades Agricultural Area) is located there along with cities of people.
So we here along the St Lucie Indian River Lagoon, are fighting a two front war. One north and the other south of the lake. We are winning in the north because the ACOE and SFWMD recognized their/our mistakes, and have been working since 1994. We are also getting closer in the to finding a safe way to “move the water south…” CEPP (Central Everglades Planning Project) is not looking good right now, but the pressure is on, and even Tallahassee is saying “move the water south!”
We must have inspiration or we will never complete our goal of saving the estuaries. The Kissimmee River is a place to look and find hope.
2014 Google Earth map of restored area of Kissimmee River.
I have been getting a lot of calls asking me to explain how South Florida’s canal systems work; how more water will be stored north of Lake Okeechobee and more sent south to the Everglades in light of everything that is recently in the newspapers. So in this short space, I will attempt to give just an overview of South Florida’s canal and drainage system. Mind you, you may come up with some of your own ideas to add to what is already being proposed…
As an aside, I must note that the main way the “powers that be” keep the public from changing “things” is that they don’t talk a lot about “how things work.” So it is our job to be proactive and figure this our by ourselves. There are many resources at our disposal should we seek, and if we help each other interpret the data.
First of all, the natural water system of Florida has been completely altered since the early 1900s and even more so since World War II. Look below at the pink line surrounding the lake; this is the approximate boundary of the original greater everglades drainage basin. Look at all of the houses built inside the pink line from Palm Beach County south. Next, look at the yellow line inside of the pink line, on the right side; this is the East Coast Protective Levee, a giant concrete permeable slab along with pumps, that keeps the natural ground water from “seeping permanently” into the area built inside the drainage basin.
Now we will look north of Lake Okeechobee to see the Kissimmee River, that has was channelized, or made straight, in the 60s and 70s that dumps tons of water into Lake Okeechobee, that in turn is diverted to our estuaries. The great river once had a wide, winding, drainage basin that held water, but it was straightened so now it all pours quickly into the lake full of agricultural and urban filth. An approximate 20 mile long section is now slowly being restored as best possible, in light of ranching and regaining right of ways. We must encourage them to restore it all in time.
Now let’s take a good look south of the lake. One can see that the entire area is now the EAA, or Everglades Agricultural Area. This area has very productive land, as it, like the Nile River in Egypt, naturally floods and overflow its banks, enriching the surrounding areas with layers of rich soil. But rather than just grow crops when the river receded, we diked the lake permanently and now grow crops year-round south of the lake, not allowing the waters to flow south if the lake starts to overflow.
Agriculture is the monetary and cultural heritage of Florida but it is interesting to note that today agriculture is the second biggest industry in Florida after tourism. With the estuaries areas growing population, today, there is substantial tourism money connected to the estuaries; there was not in the 1900 through the 1970s. But the canal system is still set up for the agriculture industry to thrive as it has since about World War II and we do need agriculture. Here in lies the tension.
Also, of course, the water being diverted into the estuaries protects people south of the lake inside that pink area from being flooded as well. So figuring “this one”out is very tricky business. Nonetheless, we must create a flow way south as hopefully CEPP will start to do.
What a change to Mother Nature. Is this now a permanent system or could it be altered to accommodate changes in values and concerns for today? Like all things, in order to survive, it must adapt.
So slowly a flow way south of the lake must be the goal; the Kissimmee River must be fully restored so its flood plain can hold and filter more water; the St Lucie River and Caloosahatchee Rivers must be restored.
I think we have all noticed that, the River Movement is finally catching traction, and we must not let up. We are excited for our seeming progress but remember, “smoke and mirrors” will appear. But this is no magic trick to be amazed by, this is real.
We are making progress. Let’s keep educating ourselves, and continue fighting and inspiring our government and our children to keep working to store more water through the restoration of the Kissimmee and send more water south. Let’s learn about South Florida’s canal and drainage system and think of ways to adapt it for a better future.
*Most of these maps can be purchased through the South Florida Water Management District or at Val Martin’s bookstore in Hobe Sound, Florida Classics Library: (http://www.floridaclassicslibrary.com)
At the request of the Florida and US government, the Army Corps of Engineers channelized the Kissimmee River between 1962 and 1970 to improve flooding that had specifically occurred in 1947. Almost immediately this channelization was recognized as problematic to Lake Okeechobee and the estuaries. In 1997 Congess approved efforts to restore parts of the Kissimmee to its natural design.
With ranch, agricultural and other land purchases that were made in the former flood plains, restoration is/was complex and difficult. Nonetheless the ACOE has completed an approximate twenty mile restoration. This is one of the few great accomplishments made so far to improve the misjudgments of the Central and South Florida Flood Project of 1948.(http://www.evergladesplan.org/about/restudy_csf_devel.aspx)
The problem with the Kissimmee was that it was straightened, let’s try to simplify what has led to the destruction/problems of the Indian River Lagoon by listing what has led to its poor health:
too much shoreline development, building the C-44 canal from Lake Okeechobee to the St Lucie a River, diking Lake Okeechobee, channelizing the creeks that are now the C-23 and C-24 canals, the channelizing of the Kissimmee River, dredging a channel in the lagoon and St Lucie River, runoff from agriculture and urban development that runs into the lagoon, automobiles and the thousands of Department of Transportation canals that also lead to lagoon, causeways that block the flow of water in the lagoon, marinas and boat traffic, fishing line and trash left to harm wildlife, rains that may carry mercury and other pollutants from thousands of miles away, inlets that have been dug and made permanent or at least not allowing the ocean to break through when and where it desired as it did for tens of thousands of years, the invention of synthetic fertilizer and septic tanks, suburbia, herbicides and pesticides and even laundry detergent, drugs and antibiotics that many of us take that seep into the waters of the lagoons causing disfunction to animal life like antibiotic resistant dolphins, (http://www.cehaweb.com/documents/2_000.pdf) the list goes on…
Fixing the Indian a River Lagoon is actually more historic and multilayered than fixing the Kissimmee River. Thankfully we know we have the will to make our government and to make ourselves fix it.