Humanature's River

By Goin, Peter | The Geographical Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview
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Humanature's River


Goin, Peter, The Geographical Review


Throughout history people have altered the earth's air, water, and soil in order to survive and thrive as a species. The consequences are pervasive. In the United States, many meandering rivers and their oxbows are dredged into channelized, straight lines; remote mountain ranges, seen from 30,000 feet above, are crisscrossed with spider webs that must be roads (Devall 1993; Shankman 1996). Yellow-brown haze blurs many a horizon, burns the lungs, and can kill trees downwind with acidic precision. Rivers and aquifers become oversubscribed, and large cities such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Tucson negotiate allocations for water flow that may never materialize or be equitably distributed. Grass lawns, deciduous trees, and agricultural fields turn desert communities into replicas of other well-watered places and times. Domestic populations of dogs, cats, cows, and horses continue to replace the splendid variety of native wildlife. Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and other once unsullied scenic areas suffer heavy burdens of tourist traffic, and campfire pollution and backpacker gridlock are common problems. High-technology logging and frequent high-fuel forest fires reduce national forests to scarred landscapes, and many national parks have become landscape zoos. Nature, if it exists in pure form at all, is under siege.

Considering the exponential population growth worldwide during the past half-century, the extensive use of fossil fuels and hydroelectric power, the development of science, technology, and agriculture, the creation of new weaponry, and the complexity and scale of global pollution, intensive management of the "global village" has become both inevitable and nearly universal. Clearly, one of the most evident and inescapable human efforts to control nature is the manipulation of water. In the United States, almost all rivers and lakes are under some form of local, regional, or federal control. The most obvious examples of managed rivers are the Mississippi and the Colorado, but other river systems have also become important indicators of how waters will be managed in the next millennium. One of these is the Kissimmee River system in central Florida.

The Kissimmee River system, originating at the headwaters near Orlando, comprises numerous lakes and two basins. The northern, or upper, basin encompasses approximately 1,595 square miles and is often referred to as the "Chain of Lakes" (Figure 1). The lower basin, encompassing approximately 684 square miles, contains Lake Kissimmee, which empties into the Kissimmee River. Before 1960 the Kissimmee River ran through a series of watery switchbacks for more than 103 miles and connected the Chain of Lakes with Lake Okeechobee, creating the headwaters for the entire Everglades ecosystem. A river teeming with largemouth bass and a mile-wide floodplain was a major stopping point for migratory birds on the Atlantic flyway. Ring-necked ducks, American widgeon, northern pintail, and blue-winged teal wintered along the Kissimmee. White and glossy ibis, herons, and egrets were common in the grassy, wet prairies and flooded lowlands of the lower Kissimmee basin. Groves of cypress, oaks, and other hardwoods provided nesting habitats for other birds.

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

From 1900 to 1960 hurricanes caused flooding throughout the basin, and for months at a time the entire Kissimmee watershed resembled nothing so much as a large lake. Extensive flooding in 1945 and 1947 and a major hurricane in 1953 threatened sprawling conurbations that had located in the floodplain. After repeated damage to personal property, the Florida congressional delegation urged the U.S. Congress to provide federal aid to the region for flood control. The delegation's successful effort resulted in the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project of 1948. Consequently, between 1961 and 1971 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers transformed the Kissimmee River into a straight, fifty-six-mile-long, thirty-foot-deep ditch for flood control (Figure 2).

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