Major controls on the retention, distribution, and discharge of surface water in the historic (precanal) Kissimmee drainage basin and river were investigated to determine reference conditions for ecosystem restoration. Precanal Kissimmee drainage-basin hydrology was largely controlled by landforms derived from relict, coastal ridge, lagoon, and shallow-shelf features; widespread carbonate solution depressions; and a poorly developed fluvial drainage network. Prior to channelization for flood control, the Kissimmee River was a very low gradient, moderately meandering river that flowed from Lake Kissimmee to Lake Okeechobee through the lower drainage basin.
We infer that during normal wet seasons, river discharge rapidly exceeded Lake Okeechobee outflow capacity, and excess surface water backed up into the low-gradient Kissimmee River. This backwater effect induced bankfull and peak discharge early in the flood cycle and transformed the flood plain into a shallow aquatic system with both lacustrine and riverine characteristics. The large volumes of surface water retained in the lakes and wetlands of the upper basin maintained overbank flow conditions for several months after peak discharge. Analysis indicates that most of the geomorphic work on the channel and flood plain occurred during the frequently recurring extended periods of overbank discharge and that discharge volume may have been significant in determining channel dimensions.
Comparison of hydrogeomorphic relationships with other river systems identified links between geomorphology and hydrology of the precanal Kissimmee River. However, drainage-basin and hydraulic geometry models derived solely from general populations of river systems may produce spurious reference conditions for restoration design criteria.