Why US Backhoes Will Fill In a Canal To Unleash a River

The Kissimmee River canal in central Florida could go down as the most expensive little canal in history.

It took the US Army Corps of Engineers 10 years and $32 million to channel the river into a canal in the 1960s. But no sooner did the digging stop than the twitter began about undoing the work. Now the nation's premier general contractor is preparing to undo its work and return the Kissimmee to something like its natural state.

The demise of the 56-mile-long canal, though, will take at least 15 years - and cost a whopping $500 million.

According to the Corps, its plan to fill in the canal will allow the Kissimmee to meander back and forth across a three-mile-wide flood plain, as it used to before the area was drained in the name of flood control.

Environmentalists hail the deconstruction project as an eco-correction of unprecedented magnitude. Restoring the Kissimmee, they say, will improve drinking-water quality, revive wetlands, and bring back much of the wildlife that populated the river before the canal.

State water managers, who are collaborating on the restoration, view the Kissimmee as a river caught between an old water-management policy that emphasized flood control and a new one based on sound ecology.

"The real irony of the Kissimmee River [is that] it was the last major drain and flood-control project built in Florida. It was completed in 1971 and by 1972 the environmental movement in the country was in full swing," says Kent Loften, a hydrologist for the South Florida Water Management District, who pushed the restoration idea when he worked for the Corps in the 1970s.

Despite the colossal cost of the restoration, there is virtually no public outcry over it. Congress and the Florida legislature committed the money several years ago, enabling the Corps' backhoes to once again begin digging up muck in the Kissimmee basin.

A restored river is far more than the dream of tree huggers and bird lovers. The Kissimmee is a vital source of drinking water for millions living on Florida's southeast coast, who have little choice but to pay for it, whatever the cost.

THROUGHOUT the '70s, mainstream political support for "the Ditch," as conservationists dubbed the canal, steadily eroded as concerns mounted that agricultural runoff into canals all over central and south Florida was threatening key sources of drinking water. Those worries began to outweigh demands by ranchers and farmers for flood-free flood plains. Still, restoration efforts remained bogged down until Congress strengthened laws to preserve wetlands in the mid-1980s.

After years of studying ways to divert water from the canal back into the river's overgrown channels, the Corps and the South Florida Water Management District have settled on a plan. With the very soil their counterparts removed 30 years ago, Army engineers filled in a 1,000-foot section of the canal two years ago, forcing the river into its old channel along that short stretch. Fish and vegetation reminiscent of the pre-canal days have returned, and the experiment has been deemed a resounding success.

The Kissimmee River flows into Lake Okeechobee, whose waters, in turn, feed the Everglades - the main source of water for Florida's densely populated southeast coast.

Because dismantling part of the state's vast flood control system is complex, it will be at least another year before the Corps can begin the 15-year schedule for filling in 30 more miles of canal. The river's headwaters, Lake Kissimmee to the north, must be restored first. The lake was lowered earlier this year to excavate tons of muck and non-native vegetation from its bed. That will allow a greater flow of lake water into the river.

Although public debate over the Kissimmee restoration has long receded, some river denizens are still shaking their heads. "There are so many things we need that money for, like schools," says Norman Smith, a lawyer who lives in the town of Kissimmee and often fishes for bass on the canal. Filling in the canal will only destroy the new ecosystem he says the Corps created by building the canal, not to mention ruin the fishing.

Environmental consultant Richard Coleman, a Sierra Club member and a former research chemist for the US Department of Agriculture, concedes that much of the river will look muddy for a long time once the large-scale filling begins. But it's all part of the ecological healing process and won't ruin the fishing, he says. "We have the opportunity for a world-class event ... the first river restored in the world."

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