Florida is defined by water extremes, frequently cycling between periods of intense rain and extended drought. This presents federal, state, and local authorities with complex hydrological challenges that are made even more difficult by the need to balance population and economic growth against environmental protection. Unfortunately, efforts to revitalize the Kissimmee River in South Florida provides a stark example of what can happens when federal infrastructure funds flow to projects that have not been subject to environmental review.
Following decades of steady growth, the population of South Florida has surpassed 6 million people, principally within Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties along the Atlantic Coast. And while these communities are defined by tourism and stunning ocean views, their fate is intimately tied to fresh water supplies located more than 200 miles away in the Orlando region and a series of water infrastructure projects carried out during the past half-century.
Lake Kissimmee sits approximately 70 miles south of Orlando, Florida. The lake is part of the larger Kissimmee Basin, which encompasses more than two dozen smaller lakes as well as marshes and tributary streams. Water from Lake Kissimmee drains into the Kissimmee River, which conveys the water down to Lake Okeechobee—a massive, shallow body of water that covers 730 square miles. From Lake Okeechobee, the water flows south, providing irrigation for agricultural production, supporting Everglades habitat, and recharging the Biscayne Aquifer.
The Biscayne Aquifer is approximately 4,000 square miles of highly permeable limestone and less permeable sandstone that sits directly under the heavily developed coastal region. Coastal cities draw their drinking water almost exclusively from the aquifer. One way to think about this hydrological chain is that downstream urban centers, as well as farmers and natural habitats, all rely on both the quantity and quality of upstream water.
While the relationship between this extensive watershed and the success of the South Florida economy is deeply interdependent, development has come at a steep price. Population growth in the early 20th century bumped up against the reality of recurrent flooding. Storms and hurricanes frequently caused the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee to flood, leading to fatalities, crop losses, and damage to property.
In response to hurricanes and flooding that hit South Florida in 1928, the state of Florida, working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or USACE, began building a major dike around the southern end of Lake Okeechobee, as well as a series of canals, to drain much of the surrounding land. Brutal flooding in 1947 pushed Congress to take additional action. In 1948, Congress authorized the Central and Southern Florida Project, or C&SF Project, which included a series of major water infrastructure projects intended to further reduce the threat of flooding in the region and to complete the reclamation of an immense section of land south of Lake Okeechobee for sugar cane production within the Everglades Agricultural Area.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Congress expanded the scope of the C&SF Project by authorizing additional facilities to impound and control water extending west and north of Lake Okeechobee along the Caloosahatchee and Kissimmee rivers, respectively. Due in part to the relatively flat topography of the region, the Kissimmee River historically had a flood plain that extended between 1 mile and 3 miles from the river’s edge. Records show that water overflowed the banks of the river as much as 50 percent of the time. This made development within the river basin particularly challenging.
Beginning in 1962, the USACE started the process of draining the wetlands and channelizing the Kissimmee River. The USACE turned what had once been a 103-mile-long meandering river into a 56-mile-long, 300-foot-wide, 30-foot-deep drainage canal called C-38. As part of this process, the USACE added six water control structures to the channel—essentially small dams with large release gates—to enhance flood control. According to the South Florida Water Management District, or SFWMD, the results were nothing short of devastating to the river and its riparian habitat. The river had been wiped out and replaced by “a series of five relatively stagnant pools.” The USACE, in a typically understated fashion, described the results as follows:
Alteration of the physical form and natural hydrologic characteristics had negative impacts on the fishery, waterfowl, wading birds and other natural resources. Wetlands were eliminated or degraded, and water quality declined.
Lost in this bureaucratic speak is the extent of the damage. For instance, the project caused wading bird and other waterfowl populations to decline 92 percent. Prior to channelization, the river produced approximately 81,000 pounds of fish that thrive on freshwater with a high dissolved oxygen content, including largemouth bass, black crappie, bluegill, catfishes, and redear sunfish. The stagnant water created by the USACE had a very low oxygen content, leading to the near elimination of these species.
The ecological damage caused by the channelization was so profound that Congress authorized the restoration of the Kissimmee River in 1992—just 21 years after the completion of the project. Stated simply, this was a stunning reversal. A central reason that this disastrous project ever moved forward is that the federal government was not required to engage in any environmental review. The USACE began work on the channelization well before the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act and other key environmental statutes, including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, among others.
As part of the environmental review for the river restoration, the USACE noted that, “While the Kissimmee River [channelization] project had been requested and supported by the State of Florida, there was some opposition to the project even before construction began. Concerns centered on fear of environmental damage that the project, primarily channelization, might cause.” Yet in the absence of formal procedural protections such as NEPA, scientists and citizens had few avenues to express their concern or push for a redesign of the project to mitigate environmental damage.
Opponents of environmental review often complain that study causes delay and delay causes construction costs to rise. While sometimes true, this line of reasoning fails to account for the immense cost of remediation. Restoring the Kissimmee River will cost taxpayers handsomely. When adjusted to 2015 dollars, the initial channelization project had a total cost of $194 million. The restoration will cost at least $1 billion—a roughly five-fold increase.
The Kissimmee River restoration contains another important lesson: namely, that engineers can design infrastructure projects in an almost unlimited number of ways. In 1962, the USACE was given a very specific mission: Reduce flooding. Through the narrow lens of flood control, the Kissimmee River channelization project was an unalloyed success. Killing the Kissimmee River dramatically reduced flooding within the basin.
By comparison, the USACE was given a very different challenge with the restoration project: Return as much of the Kissimmee River and adjacent flood plain to as natural a state as possible while maintaining an equivalent level of flood protection. In order to achieve this objective, the USACE will remove three of the water control structures and modify two others. Additionally, the USACE will backfill 22 miles of channel, allowing the river to once again take a natural, meandering path to Lake Okeechobee. The project will restore 20,000 acres of wetland.
The USACE could have prevented this cycle of destruction and renewal if only it had been tasked with taking environmental considerations into account in the first place. The physics that inform the calculations made by hydrological engineers have not changed since 1962. The needs of the flora and fauna that thrive in rivers and riparian habitats have not changed since 1962. In fact, the only thing that has changed is that the USACE now has a different problem to solve.
Attempts to paint environmental protection as a binary choice between development and protection are simply wrong. The flexibility inherent in the infrastructure design process combined with the ability to engage in meaningful mitigation efforts mean that growth and smart planning are not mutually exclusive. However, it is not simply enough to charge a federal agency with the dual mandate of investment and protection. For national environmental goals to have substantive meaning, there must be both review requirements as embodied by NEPA as well as numerous avenues for legal remedy when federal agencies fail to follow the law.