Has One Florida Dam's Day Finally Come?

Photograph by Carlton Ward Jr.
Photograph by John Moran
Photograph by Erin Condon

Has One Florida Dam's Day Finally Come?

Conservationists have waged a 41-year battle to free "the sweetest water-lane in the world" by tearing down an unnecessary dam. Their efforts have seemed hopeless--until now.

By Ted Williams
Published: July-August 2012

Last April I journeyed to Florida to inspect America's most unique dam and its influence on one of America's most unique waterways. Rodman Dam on the Ocklawaha River is the only dam in the nation without even an alleged purpose. It is a 44-year-old vestigial appendage of what, in the words of Carl Buchheister, Audubon's president from 1959 to 1967, would have been "one of the greatest boondoggles ever perpetrated." 

Rodman was the only one of three planned dams that was completed and closed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of a canal to bisect Florida. The canal was designed for ships when work got under way in 1935, but funding quickly ran out. By the time work started again in 1964, the project had been scaled down to accommodate only barges. There would be vast impoundments connected by excavated channels and accessed by five locks.

The 182-mile Cross-Florida Barge Canal would have run from Jacksonville south and upstream on the St. Johns River (to be dredged), overland to the Ocklawaha (to be dredged and impounded) to a point near Silver Springs (thus destroying most of the Silver River), then overland again to the Withlacoochee River (to be channelized, dredged, and impounded) and on to Yankeetown and the Gulf of Mexico. 

In 1971, with the project almost a third complete, President Nixon killed it, rendering the Cross-Florida Barge Canal the biggest unfinished public works project in history. So today Rodman Dam just sits there, ruining terrestrial and aquatic habitat and blocking fish and wildlife movement. 

But never have prospects for restoring the Ocklawaha and its floodplain been brighter. America is easing away from the notion that dams are sacred monuments to be preserved in perpetuity. In the past decade they have been coming down all across the nation--Elwha and Glines Canyon dams in Washington; Birch Run and West Leechburg dams in Pennsylvania; Marmot, Condit, and Savage Rapids dams in Oregon; Sturgeon River Dam in Michigan; and LaSalle Dam in New York, to mention just a few.

And now, in response to a 60-day notice of intent to sue filed by Florida Defenders of the Environment (FDE) and the Florida Wildlife Federation in February, the U.S. Forest Service--custodian of land, water, fish, and wildlife compromised by the dam--has agreed to reassess damage to endangered species. Removing or breaching the dam is the only way to fix that damage. Pending Forest Service action, the suit is on hold.

 

America doesn't have another river quite like the Ocklawaha. Rising from swamps and lakes in north-central Florida, it winds north along the western edge of the Ocala National Forest, then veers east at Orange Springs, where it's collected by the St. Johns River. Fed by clear springs gushing from a water-rich feature called the Floridan Aquifer, it is semitropical, canopied, ancient. And unlike most other Florida rivers, almost all of them its junior, its course was set by a fault line raised by primordial earthquakes. It drains 2,800 square miles, much of it sanctuary for unique plants and animals, including the Florida scrub jay, that survived on this high ground when the rest of the peninsula was under the sea.

Eighteenth-century naturalist William Bartram's description of the Ocklawaha was the inspiration for "Alph, the sacred river" in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan." And a decade after the Civil War, poet Sidney Lanier, who explored the Ocklawaha by steamboat, described it as "the sweetest water-lane in the world, a lane which runs for more than a hundred and fifty miles of pure delight betwixt hedgerows of oaks and cypresses and palms and bays and magnolias and mosses and manifold vine-growths."

It remains basically unchanged on April 9, 2012, at least where our party meets it on this windless morning fragrant with forest-fire smoke. We access it from the Silver River, a third of the way down the Ocklawaha's northern course. In my canoe is FDE director Erin Condon. In two other canoes are FDE board president Steve Robitaille--an English professor and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker preparing a documentary on the watershed and its history; longtime Ocklawaha advocate and former Putnam County Environmental Council president Karen Ahlers; Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida; and our professional guide, Lars Andersen, an accomplished birder, local historian, and author.

Sunlight, muted by the smoke, filters through overhead branches festooned with Spanish moss. Some of the more dominant trees in this rich, diverse bottomland forest are bald cypress, tupelo, sweet gum, red maple, swamp bay, cabbage palm, river elm, water hickory, green ash, and pumpkin ash. 

After a decade of drought almost all the flow comes from the Silver River, fed by the clear water of Silver Springs. So natural tannin is even more suppressed than usual. I can count the dorsal spines on largemouth bass 10 feet down. Clouds of juvenile and adult sunfish, mostly bluegills and redbreasts, hang and turn in the gentle current as if from a mobile. Florida gar, bowfins, catfish, and golden shiners ghost through and over waving eelgrass and carpets of coontail. Atlantic needlefish, iridescent green and silver, shoot across the surface. In still backwaters chain pickerel lie in ambush.

The quantity of coontail bothers Lee, who has loved and defended the river for four decades. "Only 15 years ago you could see big patches of sand," he says. "All the lawns and septic tanks around the City of Ocala send nutrients into the groundwater that feeds Silver Springs." 

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

I live here and I say leave

I live here and I say leave it be. 100 years from now we ain't gonna give a %$@*

I truly cannot understand why

I truly cannot understand why anyone would want to tear down this dam to "restore" it to its original state. I have spent many nights on Rodman hunting alligators and enjoying what seems to be one of Florida's last undeveloped waterways. I see more wildlife when on Rodman than any other place I've been in Florida. It is a very peaceful and full of life place and should be left untouched.

The dams are very

The dams are very constructive for the needs for the mankind. But every modernization and the equipment which man made are like little and big wounds on the nature. When the date of a dam came to end it is always little frightening news.

http://www.drstocktrader.com

OCALA STAR-BANNER Ocala,

OCALA STAR-BANNER
Ocala, Florida, Monday, September 30, 1968

(Photo by Ray Price)

Last View Of The Old Channel

The above view shows the old channel of the Ocklawaha River at the Rodman Pool. The U.S. Corps of Engineers said that the river will be filled today closing the Ocklawaha to boat traffic for a period of time. Note the mound of dirt at the right of picture. It will be bulldozed into the channel.

SEE MORE ABOUT THIS HISTORIC PHOTO AT:
https://sites.google.com/site/ocklawahamanpaulnoscareports/september-30-...

past mistakes

the dam may have been a mistake in the beginning but now can be the blessing florida needs.
close the dams and the barge canal permanenly and let the cities such as jacksonville and others tape into this fresh water that people need in florida.
that would be a blessing much needed.

In an article recently Ed

In an article recently Ed Taylor said over 385,000 went to Rodman 2010/2011.

I asked about the numbers and this is what I got from Mickey Thomason. FY 10/11
Visitor Counts

Eureka East 18601.00
Eureka West 30169.00
Orange Springs BR 21807.00
Buckman Visitor Center 5241.00
Rodman Rec Area(E) 37341.00
Rodman Rec Area(W) 28278.00
Rodman Campground 14149.00
Rodman Rd East Side 71683.00
Rodman Rd West Side 38370.00
Hog Valley 17789.00
Kenwood Road 20658.00
St Johns Trail Lp South 4040.00

Ed Taylor tries to make it sound like everybody is coming to the reservoir/pool/lake, whatever it is now and that is not true. Not very many people put in at the Kenwood ramp and they really don't catch much when they do. I know because I go over there and ask them on occasion and they are usually pretty mopey about not catching anything. Mickey told me Taylor got the number wrong by about 80,000 (he added 80,000). I asked Mickey if more people go to Kenwood during the drawdown and he said "Yeah a lot more people go out there then, than when the water is up".
The last time I was at the Kenwood ramp a couple of months ago I saw Taylor there and he told me the canal was blocked by hydrilla toward the locks (you could see it from the bridge) and I told him it was blocked just upstream from the Kenwood ramp too. He asked me if I saw any dead fish out on the lake and that he was concerned that there would be a fish kill. How are the manatees supposed to get through that blockage after being let through the locks? The boats can't get through it. What good is it doing to keep it that way? This was just a couple of months after the water was back up after the drawdown to get rid of the hydrilla. They can spray it with herbicide to open up the channel then all of that dead stuff settles to the bottom. It is so nasty. I would never eat a fish caught out of that stagnant pool. I drove over to the public docks after I talked to Taylor that day and there were dozens of dead catfish floating belly up downstream of the dam. People were fishing in that mess and pulling up Bluegill, etc. through the dead catfish and they were taking them home to eat. Yuck.

Needed restoration for the economy, water, trees and fish!

If and when you read all the “out of context” partial information found on the rodmanreservoir.org site make sure you read the original documents!! They are in the Ocala library and available on the DEP, FWC, SJRWM websites. Also read Ditch of Dreams. The shallow pool behind the dam is full of all kinds of vegetation. Mostly exotic Hydrilla. This plant harbors tons of brown algae and creates lots of poor bottom covered with its own dead plant material. Once again remember the so called shallow lake pool has to be drained every 3 years and it is now recommended to be kept drained for 15 months by DEP. Rodman becomes a huge fish kill threat during the summer! As for the use of Rodman Pool for drinking? They will go to the springs in the old river channel! Ask SJRWM. Rodman’s shallow hot pool of plants loses water to evaporation processes and denies the St. John's river clean cool spring water. Check the gages measurements at Eureka to Rodman. And yes it will take 75 to 100 years to get the regrowth of older trees. Which in those 75 to 100 years of growing back every spring they can reseed new replacement trees. And it that time I will have made 100’s of boat trips taking lots of folks out to enjoy watching the springs reemerge and the fish return up the river. And the restoration of the natural river channel will not require the removal of the entire dam or locks. I am a native here on the river at Eureka before the Rodman Dam and feel sorry for those that fear a natural river and prefer a dying stagnant shallow pool. Especially if they live near Blue Springs! As for the annual cost of maintaining a natural river? A big free smile!

Sandy Kokernoot

Could you kindly tell us the date and source of the study you refer to by St. Johns River Water Management District? How do you propose the funding of the over $25 million to "restore" the Ocklawaha in these dire economic times, with government budgets being slashed? We know from Forest Service studies that it will take over 75 and possibly over 100 years for true restoration.

Study says water supply and economy will benefit

A study of the St. Johns River Water Management District states a restored Ocklawaha River could supply more drinking water than Rodman Pool and the tourism created by a restored river could provide an economic base that would surpass that of Rodman Pool.
Another study, funded by the Putnam County Environmental Council, states the river is now at a historic low and the reason for this goes beyond a deficit of rainfall. The most likely cause is overpumping of the Floridan Aquifer. Silver Springs has little flow left. With or without Kirkpatrick Dam, allowing any withdrawal of water from the Ocklawaha would have a serious adverse impact on the river and its ecosystems.
Restoration is long overdue for economic and environmental reasons.

Has One Florida Dam's Day Finally Come?

If and when you read all the “out of context” partial information found on the rodmanreservoir.org site make sure you read the original documents!! They are in the Ocala library’s and available on the DEP, FWC, SJRWM websites. The shallow pool behind the dam is full of all kinds of vegetation. Mostly the invasive exotic Hydrilla. This plant harbors tons of brown algae and creates lots of poor bottom covered with its own dead plant material. Once again remember the so called shallow lake pool has to be drained/killed every 3 years and it was recommended to be kept drained for 15 months by DEP. Rodman becomes a huge fish kill threat during the summer! As for the use of Rodman Pool for drinking? They will go to the springs in the old river channel! Ask SJRWM. Rodman’s shallow hot pool of plants looses water to evaporation processes. Check the gages measurements at Eureka to Rodman. Eureka will soon have only the dead snags like Rodman due to the unnatural flooding year round by the dam. And yes it will take 75 to 100 years to get the regrowth of lost trees to become old. They only have a life span of 50 to 100 years! And in that time I and upcoming new businesses will have made 100’s of boat trips or walks in the swamp taking lots of folks out to enjoy watching the springs reemerged, flood plain regrow trees and the fish return up the river. And the restoration of the natural river channel will not require the removal of the entire dam or locks. I am a native here on the river at Eureka before the Rodman Dam and feel sorry for those that fear a natural river and prefer a dying stagnant shallow pool. Especially those that live near Blue Springs and Cannon Springs! And the cost to maintain a natural free flowing river will be a big smile!

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