Florida river project: flood of trouble

Less than 15 years ago the Kissimmee River meandered 100 miles through thinly settled central Florida on its way from Lake Kissimmee to Lake Okeechobee, from which southern Florida taps its main supply of drinking water.

Then, in the name of flood control, the United States Army Corps of Engineers dug a $40 million ditch down the middle of the meandering river's path and straightened it into a 50-mile channel.

By 1976, however, five years after the drainage project was completed, the environmental damage to the river basin and Lake Okeechobee was so severe that the Florida Legislature unanimously voted to mandate restoration of the river into its former meandering self.

But rivers are easier to straighten than restore, and with southern Florida facing a critical drought this year, the state government is again pushing the corps to find a solution.

''It came to our attention several months ago that the corps was very behind schedule and above budget on its plans to restore the Kissimmee River,'' said Victoria Tschinkel of the state Department of Environmental Regulation. ''I don't see any reason to drag the decision on endlessly.''

The state also is trying to find a way to gain more control over the low-lying areas in the middle of the state - just south of Orlando to Lake Okeechobee 100 miles away - so that more water can be stored for use in southern Florida.

Before Gov. Bob Graham, spurred by Florida environmentalists, renewed the state's interest in the project, the corps was in its fourth year of a study on river restoration - with two more years to go.

Now Col. Alfred Devereaux, the corps' district engineer, says his office will be working with the state to ensure that Florida officials get the information they need to decide this year on how best to restore the river.

The Kissimmee River once nourished 43,000 acres of wetlands in its meanderings. A few years after the drainage project was completed, only 8,000 weed-choked acres of wetlands remained, and most of the hundreds of thousands of ducks that once populated the area had flown.

Worse, Lake Okeechobee, which supplies fresh water to millions of southern Florida residents, rapidly was filling with pollutants that formerly had been filtered out by the wetlands system.

Those pollutants have caused algae and weeds to proliferate in Lake Okeechobee, scientists say. When the plant matter dies, it accumulates and begins to fill up the lake, accelerating the natural life cycle of the lake.

Environmentalists charge that the corps has no experience restoring rivers, and that it has wasted years trying to create a computer model of the Kissimmee River basin instead of finding alternatives to repair the Kissimmee.

Colonel Devereaux said the Corps wants to complete the project as quickly as anyone else, but it doesn't want to create more problems than it solves.

He said he can comply with the governor's new timetable and will produce a list of alternatives for repairing the river by the year's end.

The state is becoming anxious to get the restoration work under way. Once officials determine how much water will be held in the Kissimmee basin, the area can be opened to developers who are just discovering the market potential of the central part of the state.

''I don't want to forego any options because of lack of planning that has allowed development to come into areas that should be reflooded,'' Ms. Tschinkel said.

While most scientists agree that ditching the Kissimmee River was an environmental mistake, scientists, water management officials, and bureaucrats are divided as to whether the channel also has caused the water level in Lake Okeechobee to drop.

That question may become critical this spring. The water level of Lake Okeechobee dropped so low last year that the canals feeding much of the public water supply to the south Florida nearly stopped flowing.

And this year southern Florida is heading into the dry season with the lake's water level lower than last year.

''There's very little question that the renewed interest in the Kissimmee River is not just environmental,'' Tschinkel said. ''The focus on water supply has raised the issue that more water should be held in the Kissimmee system to feed Lake Okeechobee. We should expand the system closer to the size it used to be.''

But officials for the south Florida Water Management District disagree that Lake Okeechobee depends on the Kissimmee River system. Low levels in Lake Okeechobee are a result of dry conditions throughout central Florida, they say, and the Kissimmee River adds very little water to the lake.

''You could take Lake Kissimmee and put all of it into Lake Okeechobee and you'd hardly notice the difference,'' said Walter Dineen, environmental specialist for the water management district.

Environmentalists say the Kissimmee River mistake should serve as a lesson that man should not try to alter his environment without careful consideration.

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