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Putting the Curves Back in the Kissimmee River
In the 1960s, the meandering Kissimmee was dredged and turned into the C-38 canal to control flooding. As a result, 45,000 acres of wetlands was turned into pastureland. Today, large sections of the canal have been filled in, restoring the river's curves and wetlands.

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Kissimmee River Animation
This animation from "Water's Journey: Everglades" explains how the straightening of the Kissimmee River contributed to problems in the Everglades.

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Learn About Your Watershed

Kissimmee River Watershed

Image of A former cattle pasture is now a reclaimed and restored marsh floodplain in the Kissimmee River watershed.
A former cattle pasture is now a reclaimed and restored marsh floodplain in the Kissimmee River watershed. © Russell Sparkman

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: 2,932 square miles - Kissimmee River
850 square miles - Fisheating Creek

Major Towns:
Orlando, Kissimmee, St. Cloud, Lake Wales, Avon Park, Sebring, Lake Placid, Venus, Palmdale, and the Seminole Brighton Indian Reservation

Counties: Orange, Osceola, Polk, Okeechobee, Highlands, and Glades Counties

Major Water Features: Butler Chain of Lakes; Upper Kissimmee Chain of Lakes; Alligator Chain of Lakes; Lake Wales Ridge lakes; Reedy, Bonnet and Shingle Creeks; Kissimmee River; Lake Weohyakapka; Lake Arbuckle; Arbuckle Creek; Lake Istokpoga; Fisheating Creek; Gopher Gully; Gator Slough and Cowbone Marsh; Canal-41, Canal-41A, Harney Pond, and Indian Prairie Canals; and Lake Okeechobee

Overview

Image of Backfilling of a 22-mile section of the C-38 canal is helping to restore parts of the Kissimmee River and is one of the great success stories in watershed restoration.
Backfilling of a 22-mile section of the C-38 canal is helping to restore parts of the Kissimmee River and is one of the great success stories in watershed restoration. SFWMD

The Kissimmee River and Fisheating Creek watersheds are adjacent basins that both flow into Lake Okeechobee and are part of the greater Everglades ecosystem. The Kissimmee River Basin extends from Orlando southward to Lake Okeechobee. The largest source of surface water to Lake Okeechobee, this basin is about 105 miles long and has a maximum width of 35 miles. The northern portion of the basin, referred to as the Chain of Lakes, contains many lakes, some of which are interconnected by canals. The Chain of Lakes is bounded on the southern end by State Road 60 where the largest of the lakes, Lake Kissimmee, empties into the Kissimmee River. The southern portion of the basin includes the Lake Wales Ridge lakes, the Kissimmee River itself, and its tributary watersheds (including flow from the Istokpoga watershed) between Lake Kissimmee and Lake Okeechobee. The Kissimmee River was originally a 103-mile-long shallow, meandering river that was reconfigured in the 1960s into a 56-mile-long canal (renamed C-38) for flood control.

Image of Birds like the Black-necked stilt are coming back to the Kissimmee River watershed as river and wetlands restoration progresses.
Birds like the Black-necked stilt are coming back to the Kissimmee River watershed as river and wetlands restoration progresses. Russell Sparkman

The Fisheating Creek Basin extends from west-central Highlands County (from just south of S.R. 66) southward into the northern portion of Glades County, and eastward towards Lake Okeechobee. It includes Fisheating Creek, the C-41 and C-41A canals, and Indian Prairie between Lakes Istokpoga and Okeechobee.

The very northern end of the Kissimmee River Basin is primarily urban and includes a small portion of the city of Orlando, three large theme parks (Walt Disney World, SeaWorld, and Universal Studios), Orlando International Airport, and the cities of Kissimmee and St. Cloud. There are some pockets of residential development along the Lake Wales Ridge (in the cities of Lake Wales, Avon Park, Sebring, and Lake Placid) and a military installation (Avon Park Air Force Range). However, agricultural lands (citrus groves, cattle ranches, caladium fields, and sod farms) as well as wetlands and upland forests dominate the remainder of the Kissimmee River Basin and all of the Fisheating Creek Basin.

Human Impacts

Image of The dredging of the C-38 Canal along the Kissimmee River in the 1960s was an answer to flooding problems in the basin. However, the environmental impacts of channeling the river were quickly recognized, and calls for the restoration began even during canal construction.
The dredging of the C-38 Canal along the Kissimmee River in the 1960s was an answer to flooding problems in the basin. However, the environmental impacts of channeling the river were quickly recognized, and calls for the restoration began even during canal construction. Florida Memory Project

The Kissimmee River and Fisheating Creek Basins lie at the northern end of an interconnected Everglades ecosystem. Historically, water from these rivers slowly meandered into Lake Okeechobee and exited unimpeded from the lake southward into the Everglades through small tributaries and broad sheetflow during the rainy season. Prior to the 20th century, long periods of flooding and hurricanes made most of south Florida inhospitable to development. To open land for development, Hamilton Disston led an effort in 1882 to dredge canals between the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, and between Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River. The latter provided Lake Okeechobee's first outlet to salt water (the Gulf of Mexico) via the Caloosahatchee River. Then the Kissimmee River Navigation Project, authorized by Congress in 1902, resulted in a navigation channel being dredged from the town of Kissimmee downstream to Fort Basinger, with a side channel through Istokpoga Creek.

In 1926 and 1928, two major hurricanes generated storm surges in Lake Okeechobee that killed more than 2,400 people. The 1928 hurricane, in particular, killed more people than any other hurricane in U.S. history, except for the Galveston hurricane of 1900. To prevent such devastation from recurring, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) to construct the Herbert Hoover Dike, an earthen levee that still surrounds the lake's perimeter.

In 1947, two back-to-back hurricanes again flooded the region. In response, Congress authorized the Central and Southern Florida (C&SF) Flood Control Project in 1948. It became a massive flood management system that raised the height of the Hoover Dike, extending it completely around Lake Okeechobee, and leading Congress to further authorize the channelization of the Kissimmee River for additional flood control in 1954. The channelization of the Kissimmee River began in 1961 and was completed 10 years later. Six locks and dams along the river controlled flow into Lake Okeechobee. The 103-mile-long, meandering river was replaced by the 56-mile-long C-38 canal, eliminating the seasonal flooding of the river's floodplain, which averaged about two miles in width during the wet season.

The backfilling of the C-38 Canal and restoration of Kissimmee River are one of Florida's great watershed restoration success stories.

Image of The creation of the C-38 Canal resulted in the loss of some 40,000 acres of marsh floodplain and stimulated cattle ranching and agriculture, which harmed the quality of water flowing to Lake Okeechobee.
The creation of the C-38 Canal resulted in the loss of some 40,000 acres of marsh floodplain and stimulated cattle ranching and agriculture, which harmed the quality of water flowing to Lake Okeechobee. Russell Sparkman

The construction of the C-38 Canal considerably altered the hydrology, water quality, and wetlands in the Kissimmee River Basin. The dams in the canal created permanently flooded ponds, while farther upstream wetlands were drained and replaced by terrestrial vegetation. As a result, about 40,000 to 50,000 acres of floodplain marsh disappeared, resulting in a significant loss of habitat for wading birds and other aquatic animals, and in a loss of the natural nutrient-filtering effects of these wetlands. Drainage also eliminated the river's natural oxbows and stimulated agricultural development in the floodplain and adjacent wetlands, all of which altered the quality of the water entering Lake Okeechobee.

The environmental impacts of channeling the river into the C-38 Canal were quickly recognized, and calls for the restoration of the river began even during canal construction. The 15-year restoration project, initiated in 1999, is repairing the river and its floodplain by increasing water storage in the upper Kissimmee Basin, backfilling 22 miles of the C-38 Canal, recarving nine miles of river channel, removing two water control structures, and removing floodplain levees. The backfilling of the C-38 Canal and restoration of Kissimmee River are one of Florida's great watershed restoration success stories.

In recognition of the impacts of human activities, DEP, the SFWMD, and local governmental, scientific, educational, and citizen organizations are working to develop strategies for protecting and restoring water quality and quantity in the Kissimmee River-Fisheating Creek watersheds.

Interesting Facts:

  • Agriculture is the major land use in the Kissimmee River and Fisheating Creek watersheds, occupying about 45 percent and 70 percent of each basin, respectively.
  • Citrus production occurs throughout both basins, and the 225,660 acres of citrus planted in the region comprise more than 27 percent of all the citrus production in Florida.
  • Cattle ranching and dairy farming are also extremely important. The region contains approximately 534,000 head of beef and dairy cattle.
  • The four largest lakes in Florida are located in these watersheds.
  • The city of Lake Placid, originally known as Lake Stearns, was renamed in the late 1920s by the educator, librarian, and Dewey Decimal System inventor Dr. Melvil Dewey, who developed the town as a winter resort for his wealthy friends from Lake Placid, New York.
  • Lake Placid touts itself as the "Caladium Capital of the World". Over 1,200 acres are dedicated to growing caladiums, a popular ornamental plant. This acreage is owned and managed by 14 families, some of which have been producing caladiums for over 40 years.
  • The 5,238-acre Archbold Biological Station, a world-class ecological research center for the xeric scrub community of the Lake Wales Ridge, is located near Lake Placid.
  • The Lake Wales Ridge has a large concentration of rare and endangered plants and animals, with 24 plants and 19 animals currently having federal or state status as threatened or endangered.
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