Thank you for joining us for another exciting update from Audubon’s Dr. Paul Gray! In this post, Dr. Gray updates us on Kissimmee River restoration, focusing on the Istokpoga Canal. Read on for the very latest about this exciting project. Enjoy!
Lake Istokpoga is Florida’s fifth largest lake and used to flow to the Kissimmee River through Istokpoga Creek on its east side. Professor W. S. Blatchley paddled up the creek from the Kissimmee River on February 22, 1913, noting it had a three mile per hour current, an average width of 25 feet, and myriad trees arching across its crooked turns. A large canal was built down the creek thereafter and a structure installed to separate flows between the lake and river. Today, Lake Istokpoga drains through the S-68 structure southward toward Lake Okeechobee, but can drain down the canal during emergencies.
The Kissimmee Restoration project will change these management plans. During wet periods, the Kissimmee floodplain will have water levels higher than Lake Istokpoga, which will prevent the canal from being able to help drain the lake. To compensate for this lost drainage capacity and prepare for river restoration, the US Army Corps of Engineers recently built an additional gate next to the S-68 structure, called S-68X. The structure on the Istokpoga Canal also has been replaced with a new structure, the S-67, that has a companion, S-67X, in the old creek channel.
The first Corps plan to build the S-67 structure on the canal called for cutting all the old trees from both sides of the canal for miles, and dredging it deeper. To their surprise, I sent them a paper by Dr. Ken Meyer that documented the trees along the canal were so mature they hosted nesting Short-tailed Hawks. This was not new, Don Nicholson saw Short-tails along Istokpoga Creek in 1910 (Florida Naturalist 1951. 24:32-33). Indeed, I noted the canal was so old it had partly silted in and had much biological value in its channel and along its shores.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service agreed with Audubon and helped negotiate with the Corps to spare almost all the trees (except those where the new structure would be) and only dredge the part of the canal that needed deepening for boat access to the Kissimmee floodplain. I recently kayaked down the Istokpoga Canal with USFWS staff members, Bob Pace and Steve Schubert, to see the structures and inspect the canal. A Merlin zipped around us, the new structures were in and ready to function, and the trees and creek remain a unique biological resource.
Oddly enough, I also realize I like a canal.