The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) plan to allow higher water levels in Lakes Kissimmee, Cypress and Hatchinhea in order to store more wet season water for release to the restored portion of the Kissimmee River in the dry season.
The first increment, expected to go into effect this year, will increase water levels in the lakes by about 6 inches. Land that will be effected by the change has already been purchased by the state. Increment 1 will remain in effect until a subsequent increment is implemented, or upon implementation of the full Headwaters Revitalization Schedule.
In the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers channelized the Kissimmee River for flood control. This allows them to relieve flooding in Orlando/Kissimmee by sending the water rapidly south into Lake Okeechobee, as happened after Hurricane Ian. The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) website explains: “While the project delivered on the promise of flood protection, it also destroyed much of a floodplain-dependent ecosystem that nurtured threatened and endangered species, as well as hundreds of other native fish and wetland-dependent animals.”
In 1999, USACE began a project to put the curves back into a portion of the river and force water to spread out over the original river flood plain in that area. The project backfilled 22 miles of the 56-mile channel, “restoring” the center portion of the old river.
According to information shared at a recent SFWMD Governing Board meeting, in order to keep the restored floodplain hydrated, water managers need a flow of 1,400 cubic feet per second (cfs) from Lake Kissimmee to the river. That means they need to store more water in the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes in the wet season in order to provide sufficient flow to the river flood plain in the dry season.
The update of the Headwaters Revitalization Schedule will use a portion of the additional storage capacity in Lakes Kissimmee, Hatchineha and Cypress (KCH) achieved through real estate acquisition.
A multi-agency, collaborative effort between USACE, SFWMD, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered four different alternatives. These alternatives were computer modeled using historic lake stage and flow records from 1965-2018.
The Headwaters Revitalization Schedule will be implemented in phases to hold more water in Lakes Kissimmee, Cypress and Hatchineha to allow historic flows to the Kissimmee River while maintaining the same level of flood protection.
Intensive monitoring will occur to assess the affects of modifying water levels.
Phased updates to the management plan will allow successively higher stages in Lakes Kissimmee, Cypress, and Hatchineha until approximately 2026, when the Headwaters Revitalization Schedule will be fully implemented.
The objective of the Headwaters Revitalization Schedule is to provide sufficient water storage to reestablish historical (pre-channelization) flow patterns to the Kissimmee River through the increased flow capacity for the S-65 structure. The higher stages allowed by the schedule are also expected to improve littoral zone habitat in the lakes.