Earlier this month, we had the opportunity to tour two historic South Florida rivers with two very different stories: the Kissimmee River and the Caloosahatchee.
The Kissimmee River is one of the success stories of Everglades restoration. During the 1960’s, this meandering river was channelized and straightened in an effort to prevent seasonal flooding. It was quickly realized that this was a grave mistake, and in 1992, Congress authorized the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) to implement the Kissimmee River Restoration project. To this day, 24 miles of the winding river have successfully been restored, resulting in increased wildlife and wading bird populations.
One of the unique aspects of our trip to the Kissimmee River is the research facility that we launch from. Operated in partnership with Florida Atlantic University, the Riverwoods Field Lab is located on an old fishing and hunting camp, complete with historic homes that have been re-purposed to meet a team of researchers’ needs.
We set out on the Riverwoods pontoon boat, the Kissimmee Explorer, down historic and restored portions of the scenic river and also assisted on a bird count along the way.
A few days later, we ventured to Fort Myers to learn about the Caloosahatchee. We joined a group of over 40 teachers from across the state of Florida enrolled in a professional development course focused on the Everglades.
Dan Kimball, the Superintendent of Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks was also there with his wife, Kit. Portions of the tour were led by Dr. Paul George, a renowned historian and tour guide who specializes in South Florida. Dr. Mary Kay Cassani from Florida Gulf Coast University also joined us. She provided an overview of the river’s history and answered questions about the health and future of the Caloosahatchee.
The Caloosahatchee often faces hardships as it competes for a piece of the water pie that is demanded from Lake Okeechobee during the dry season each year. Conversely, in the summer months when there is a surplus of water in the Lake, the Caloosahatchee, coupled with the St. Lucie River to the east, is used as an outlet for large amounts of freshwater released from the Lake in accordance with Army Corps of Engineers’ flood control practices.
These releases cause a disturbance in the salinity levels of the river, which is also an estuarine habitat, and upsets the delicate balance needed for healthy sea grasses, oysters and other organisms to thrive.
This is a unique opportunity for teachers to experience the Everglades ecosystem, while gathering personal experiences and knowledge to share in their classrooms.
In January, the group will travel to the Western Everglades to visit Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Everglades City.
All photos by Jessica Hodder.