A federal bill is making its way through U.S. Congress that, if approved, could help fund an environmental study at the Kissimmee River by designating it under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers program.
HB 37 aims to authorize a study of Kissimmee River so it can be included in the rivers program, a designation that grants the waterway and its tributaries stringent ecological protections.
The Kissimmee River is a naturally winding river that enters Osceola County at East Lake Tohopekaliga and forms the headwaters of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. Below Lake Kissimmee, the river creates the boundary between Osceola and Polk counties.
In the 1950s, the river was dredged to reduce flooding in Central and South Florida, but a few decades later it became clear that altering the river’s natural course was having major environmental impacts to wetland waterflow and wildlife in surrounding regions.
Efforts to restore the Kissimmee River to its original state were approved by Congress in 1992 and modifications to the headwater lakes began in 1997.
After more than two decades, the Kissimmee River Restoration Project has improved over 63,000 acres of wetlands within the watershed and helped restore wildlife.
The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was created by Congress in 1968 to provide protection to outstanding free-flowing rivers. Protection is granted via voluntary stewardship by landowners and river users, and through regulation and programs of federal, state or local governments, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Soto introduced HB 37 in January to help get the Kissimmee River into that program, along with five other environmental measures that take aim at everything from sinkholes to fracking.
Soto put forth an identical bill for the river study last year. It passed the House but then stalled.
“We will continue to work tirelessly to advance this critical legislation,” Soto said in a January statement.
St. Cloud resident and environmentalist Valerie Anderson said she thinks the Kissimmee River bill is a good way to bring attention and protection to a natural Osceola County resource.
“A lot of work and money has gone into restoring the Kissimmee River and it deserves to be recognized as an ecologically and economically valuable river,” she said.
Anderson was appointed to Soto’s new Environmental Advisory Board in late February along with eight other community leaders and eco-advocates.
Anderson, who also serves as the director of communications and programming at the Florida Native Plant Society, said additional protection would be perfect for a rapidly developing area of Osceola County.
“The south shore of Lake Tohopekaliga flows into the Kissimmee River and the entire lakeshore is slated for development,” she said. “This title and recognition couldn’t come at a better time.”