Why US Backhoes Will Fill in a Canal to Unleash a River

Article excerpt

The Kissimmee River canal in central Florida could go down as the most expensive little canal in history.

It took the US Army Corps of Engineers 10 years and $32 million to channel the river into a canal in the 1960s. But no sooner did the digging stop than the twitter began about undoing the work. Now the nation's premier general contractor is preparing to undo its work and return the Kissimmee to something like its natural state.

The demise of the 56-mile-long canal, though, will take at least 15 years - and cost a whopping $500 million.

According to the Corps, its plan to fill in the canal will allow the Kissimmee to meander back and forth across a three-mile-wide flood plain, as it used to before the area was drained in the name of flood control.

Environmentalists hail the deconstruction project as an eco-correction of unprecedented magnitude. Restoring the Kissimmee, they say, will improve drinking-water quality, revive wetlands, and bring back much of the wildlife that populated the river before the canal.

State water managers, who are collaborating on the restoration, view the Kissimmee as a river caught between an old water-management policy that emphasized flood control and a new one based on sound ecology.

"The real irony of the Kissimmee River {is that} it was the last major drain and flood-control project built in Florida. It was completed in 1971 and by 1972 the environmental movement in the country was in full swing," says Kent Loften, a hydrologist for the South Florida Water Management District, who pushed the restoration idea when he worked for the Corps in the 1970s.

Despite the colossal cost of the restoration, there is virtually no public outcry over it. Congress and the Florida legislature committed the money several years ago, enabling the Corps' backhoes to once again begin digging up muck in the Kissimmee basin.

A restored river is far more than the dream of tree huggers and bird lovers. The Kissimmee is a vital source of drinking water for millions living on Florida's southeast coast, who have little choice but to pay for it, whatever the cost.

THROUGHOUT the '70s, mainstream political support for "the Ditch," as conservationists dubbed the canal, steadily eroded as concerns mounted that agricultural runoff into canals all over central and south Florida was threatening key sources of drinking water. …