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The Kissimmee: A River Re-Curved

The Kissimmee: A River Re-Curved

The restoration's goal is to put as much of the Kissimmee as possible back to the way it was.

It sounds almost superhuman to try straighten a river and then recarve the curves.

That's what federal and state officials did to the Kissimmee River in Central Florida. They straightened the river in the 1960s into a canal to drain swampland and make way for the state's explosive growth. It worked — and it created an ecological disaster. So officials decided to restore the river's slow-flowing, meandering path.

That billion-dollar restoration — the world's largest — is a few years from completion. And so far, it's bringing signs of new life, especially on a man-made canal that was dug through the heart of the river.

"Birds are back, both wading birds and ducks. They're all over the place," says Paul Gray of Audubon Florida. "The oxygen levels in the river are better. There's a lot more game fish in the river like bass and bluegill and stuff. Most of the biological perimeters, the goals of the restoration we've already met."

The man-made canal begins near Walt Disney World in Central Florida and flows 50 miles south. "It messed up our water management infrastructure," Gray says. "Now we drain so much water that when it's dry we don't have enough water for our human needs. We overdrained, and so now we're trying to rebuild the system where we're going to catch water instead of wasting it when it's wet."

For decades, piles of dirt dug for the canal have remained heaped on its banks. Now bulldozers are pushing the dirt back into the waterway, filling it and making way for the river's old meanderings to re-carve their historic path. Five dams controlling the waterway's flow are being blown up, allowing the water to flow naturally.

The 20-year restoration effort is expected to be complete by 2017.