Join Bob on June 14th at the Marco Island Historical Society auditorium to learn more about the watershed north of Lake O and how it has changed areas closer to home. Start time is 7 PM.
For years now, it’s been all over the news. The Everglades are dying, it’s drying out. The water flow has been altered and is being pushed to the east and west coastlines, denying lands directly south of Lake Okeechobee the much-needed hydration it deserves to thrive. Nearly 50% of the natural landscape in a pristine ecosystem is gone…changed forever.
These are, indeed, current issues that need to be addressed. But is this where the problem really starts? All of the talk seems to be about Big Cypress Preserve and Everglades National Park, but are these locations the root of it all or just the end result? If so, where does the issue really begin?
The waters entering Lake O have to come from somewhere and this is where our search leads us on this particular journey. As the crow flies, about 100 miles north of Lake O is Lake Kissimmee. The rains, rivers and streams from northern Florida and southern Georgia make their way to a series of lakes in the center of our state with Lake K being one of the largest recipients of those runoffs. Originally nature created a meandering path for the waters typically known as “oxbows.” It is a twisting, winding way carved out by the path of least resistance that actually encompasses 134 miles. This is the Kissimmee River. It is Lake O’s largest watershed covering nearly 3,000 square miles and supplying about 1/2 of Lake O’s annual water flow. It forms the headwaters of the Kissimmee River Lake O everglades ecosystem.
Nature had developed a perfect habitat, a balance of plant life and animals that thrived in perfect harmony. Egrets, herons, eagles, panthers, deer and bears all called this land home. Everything was fine until man came along.
Recognizing the value of the soils for agricultural and pasture, settlers poured into the basin to carve out their futures.
Just as Lake O experienced flooding in the 1920s that affected settlers to the south it was just a matter of time before the Kissimmee basin would feel the same pain. In 1947 the Fort Lauderdale Hurricane and the October
Hurricane produced severe rains and floods over central and south Florida (hurricanes did not receive names as we knowthem today until 1950). Requests for federal assistance to control future problems led Congress to approve the canalization of the Kissimmee River in 1954. From 1962 to 1970 the Army Corps of Engineers dredged what is known as canal C-38 down the Kissimmee valley, shortening that meandering, natural water path to 56 miles to Lake O. As you might guess this project damaged the river composition and the faster water flow led to major problems in both the Kissimmee valley and in Lake O. Those oxbows that slowed the flow were now gone.
Forty thousand acres of flood plain were now drying out because of the straight channel that man created. Nature responded very quickly. Waterfowl was reduced by 90%, the population of egrets, herons and storks shrunk by 2/3.
Largemouth bass catches dropped dramatically and the bald eagle numbers decreased by 70%. The 56 mile long ditch, 300 feet wide (the length of a football field) and 30 feet deep (deeper than the depths of the Marco River) was taking its toll, all in the name of progress.
Prior to the canalization, Lake K was not a significant source of pollution. From the 1970s on, the Kissimmee River contributed about 25% of the nitrogen and 20% of the phosphates flowing into Lake O.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long to understand that something was drastically wrong. Fifty-five square miles of wetland habitat was lost and outcries from conservationists did not fall on deaf ears. The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) ordered the restoration of as much of the river as possible. Twenty years later, parts of the original course of the river were restored and almost 22 miles of the drainage canal are back-filled.
Further results have been successful since the 1990s. This would become the largest river restoration in history.
Great strides are taking place closer to home, for sure. However, it is important to understand that Lake O is not where the issue of water quality started for South Florida. We all understand progress. In order to sustain our human population we know that sacrifices to the environment will be made continually. Are we eventually biting the hand that feeds us? It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!
Bob is a naturalist for a dolphin survey team on Marco Island and author of the pictorial nature book “Beyond The Mangrove Trees.” He is a member of the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism. Bob loves his wife very much!