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Board picks $276-million plan to restore river

Regional water managers Thursday endorsed a $276-million plan to restore the Kissimmee River, which is now channeled into a 52-mile concrete canal. The plan adopted by the South Florida Water Management District was the most ambitious of four proposals to rebuild about 42,000 acres of marshes and calls for filling 25 to 30 miles of the canal to force the river back to its original course.

The district was nudged by Gov. Bob Martinez, who last month pledged his support for the plan.

The unprecedented project is intended to correct the environmental damage caused when the Army Corps of Engineers turned the winding, 98-mile-long river into a canal running straight into Lake Okeechobee.

"They just built a ditch right through the valley," said Paul Parks of the Florida Wildlife Federation. "It was just an abomination."

The state plans to ask the federal government to pay 80 percent of the restoration costs.

The canal, authorized by Congress in 1954 in response to public outcry over hurricane damage, was finished in 1971, only a year before the first public hearing to reverse its effects.

"It was kind of the end of an era for those kind of drainage projects," Parks said.

As recently as the mid-1980s, the Corps saw the federal government taking no responsibility for restoration, said district Executive Director John Wodraska.

But he said the Corps is now touting Kissimmee restoration as the

environmental project of the 1990s with the agency in a prominent, and

possible leading, role.

The regional water board delayed for a month allocating any money for the restoration project because of loose financial commitments from the state and federal government.

The complete restoration is expected to take 10 to 15 years.