Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto said Monday he intends to sponsor legislation to protect the Kissimmee River with a designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Such a move, if it were to be approved, would enact broad protections for the river, which starts in Osceola County’s Little Lake Tohopekaliga and, at least in its original bed, meanders 103 miles before emptying into Lake Okeechobee, and providing the Everglades with one of its largest sources of water.
But in the mid-20th century the Army Corps of Engineers set out to address flooding by channeled the river into canals that created a straight shot between the lakes, flooding Okeechobee with much of the phosphate-based pollution that is strangling the Everglades and causing Florida’s algae blooms. In the 1990s, by act of Congress, the corps reversed policy and began restoring the river to its natural state, and the $1 billion project is a little more than half done.
Soto, speaking at a town hall meeting in Orlando focusing on environmental issues, called for widespread actions to address Florida’s natural environment, particularly the Everglades, and announced that as part of that he will introduce a bill to put the Kissimmee River into the class of the nation’s most protected and revered rivers.
The move is for both the river’s sake and the Everglades sake, he noted.
“The Kissimmee River has an unusual windiness to us which allows the water to be cleaned. If it’s a Wild and Scenic River, that’ll limit what activities can be done on there, primarily recreational,” Soto said. “Right now there’s not much other than recreational happening there. But there is nothing in the law to stop that. So we want to enshrine it into law. And then we’ll be able to get federal funds.”
The Wild and Scenic River Act of 1972 has three designations: wild, scenic and recreational, with varying degrees of restrictions. Nationally more than 200 rivers are in the system, covering about 12,700 miles, representing less than one half of one percent of the nations rivers, according to the U.S. National and Wild Scenic Rivers Office. In Florida, just two rivers are enrolled, the Wekiva River in Central Florida, and the Loxahatchee River along the Treasure Coast.
The Kissimmee River bill news drew strong applause from the largely environmentally-conscious crowd. Otherwise, Soto and several other Democratic officials who participated in the town hall, including state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, Orange County Commissioner Emily Bonilla, Orange Soil and Water Conservation District Chairman Eric Rollings and Supervisor Daisy Morales, and an aide to state Sen. Linda Stewart, all of Orlando.
Their news on environmental legislation was mixed at best, but hopeful for environmentalists, who led applause for the officials’ promises to fight against fracking, offshore oil and gas drilling, protection of Florida’s springs, and restrictions on growth east of the Econlockhatchee River.
Soto noted that in particular he has joined bipartisan Florida support for a variety of measures ranging from extending the ban on oil and gas drilling off Florida’s Gulf Coast, seeking money for Everglades restoration, and pushing for recognition of and programs to address global warming and the projected sea level rise that would hit Florida hardest. But in none of those measures does bipartisan support extend much beyond the Florida congressional delegation.