Kissimmee River Restoration thirty years in the making

Above: Kissimmee River restoration. Photo: South Florida Water Management District

The Kissimmee River was once a haven for wildlife. Egrets, herons, and Roseate Spoonbills waded in the shallows of the curving waterway, foraging for prey in the midst of waving reeds and healthy wetlands. Snail Kites fed chicks where the river flowed into Lake Okeechobee. Ibis nested here by the thousands. In all, 38 species of water birds and 39 species of fish made their homes in the 103 miles of the Kissimmee.

Great Egret. Photo: Lin Teichman/Audubon Photography Awards

In a move of unparalleled hubris, people thought they could improve the river by aggressive channelization. Between 1962 and 1971, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) channeled the Kissimmee River and created a 30-foot deep, 300-foot wide, 56-mile long drainage canal (C-38). This project drained approximately 50,000 acres of the Kissimmee River’s floodplain wetlands, of which about 25,000 will be restored.

This video compares 23 USDA aerials from 1941 and 1944 to historical aerials from 1999. The early aerials predate the transformation of the river into a canal in the 1960s. The 1999 aerials show the canal before recent restoration efforts. Beginning in 1999, the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers began restoring sections of the river by dismantling the canal. Twenty-four miles of river have been restored. Aerials of those restoration projects will be the subject of future videos. Source: Todd Thurlow.

Audubon has been advocating for the restoration of the Kissimmee River since channelization construction began. We supported the restoration when Congress authorized the project in 1992, and advocated for water reservation until eventual approval in 2020. Through it all we have been a voice for birds and wildlife that have benefited from the newly restored river, as well as vocal proponents of how the natural channel will benefit flood control and water quality for surrounding communities.

"This project’s primary goal is to restore the Kissimmee’s ecosystems, but it benefits everyone downstream as well. It will store more water during wet periods, provide more flow during dry periods, and the water in the river will be cleansed by the plant communities. Natural restoration in action."

~Paul Gray, PhD, Audubon Florida Everglades Science Coordinator

Starting in 1999, the Army Corps of Engineers and partners at the South Florida Water Management District began to restore the natural curves of the river in the largest restoration project of its kind in the world. The project, which was Congressionally authorized in 1992, restores 40 miles of the river and floodplain and almost 25,000 acres of wetlands. The river’s floodplain will flood seasonally and the river will meander again in order to replicate its natural path. After restoration, Lake Kissimmee will rise 1.5 feet, storing water to feed the river during the dry season and rehydrating another 20 square miles of dried marshes around it.

Left: Figure 9-2. Lower Kissimmee Basin with actual and projected completion dates of construction phases. (Note: KRR = Kissimmee River Restoration.) From 2019 South Florida Environmental Report – Volume I.

“The conclusion of the Kissimmee River Restoration project is a historic milestone for Everglades restoration. This event highlights an important shift in Everglades restoration projects across the state as we transition from construction to operation. We are thrilled with the ecological benefits we are already seeing from these projects.”

~ Kelly Cox, Director of Everglades Policy, Audubon Florida.

Kayaking the Kissimmee River. Photo: South Florida Water Management District

The Kissimmee River Restoration project has already achieved innumerable benefits for the ecosystem. Now with construction complete, wading birds are returning in droves and are surpassing restoration goal numbers. Waterfowl and shorebirds have again become seasonally abundant in the area and the populations of bass and sunfish are steadily increasing. This project’s primary goal was to restore the Kissimmee’s ecosystems, but it also benefits everyone downstream. The project allows for more water to be stored during wet periods, it provides more flow during dry periods, and it allows for natural water filtration thanks to the wetland plant communities.

"Birds are resilient! They flocked back to the restored areas faster than we had hoped - if you build it they will come! This large-scale infrastructure improvement proves that ecosystem restoration holds benefits for both birds and people, and is an important water-resources investment for now and into the future."

~Julie Hill-Gabriel, Audubon's Vice President for Water Conservation

Hurricane Irma showcased how the newly restored Kissimmee River would function during extreme events. Before restoration, the channelized Kissimmee River would flush water quickly into Lake Okeechobee, draining the surrounding floodplain. During and after the storm, the restoration completed to date allowed the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes to hold significant amounts of water rather than sending it into the lake, mirroring the ecosystem’s historic ability to respond to high water levels in the Northern Everglades.

Hurricane Irma, 2017.

Wetland habitats of the Kissimmee River channel and floodplain now support at least 159 bird species, 66 of which are considered wetland-dependent during some portion of their life cycles.


The Army Corps of Engineers, South Florida Water Management District, and partners celebrated this important milestone in Everglades Restoration with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 29.

In this video, former SFWMD and Audubon Florida board member John Flanigan recounts some of his involvement in the process.

Closed captioning is available.