Has One Florida Dam's Day Finally Come?

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


another viewpoint on Rodman

In reading Ted William's article, I was concerned by the lack of factual data, the errors and the emotional, one-sided reporting. As a lifelong Florida resident, an environmentalist, a member of Audubon and a homeowner whose nearly seven acre property adjoins the Florida Greenways at Rodman Reservoir (also known as Lake Ocklawaha), I found many inaccuries and omissions in this article.
The cost to operate Rodman Dam (which is really Kirkpatrick Dam) was $155,299 for the fiscal year 2010-11, as reported by Florida DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) information. The cost to operate the gravity fed Buckman Lock is negligible and is basically the lock tender's salary and a small amount of electricity. There are no pumps to run, as this is a gravity fed lock. This is far less than the unsubstantiated figure of $1 million, as was reported by Ted Williams. What was not addressed in the article was the cost to remove the dam and "restore" the river. According to an April 2007 estimate compiled and published by the State of Florida Office of Greenways and Trails DEP, this cost is $25,800,000. That's right, $25.8 million! A copy of this quote has been forwarded to the Editor of Audubon.
A very important aspect that was totally omitted in Mr. William's article is that Lake Ocklawaha effectively acts as a purifying system for the filtration of ever increasing pollutants that flow from the watersheds of Silver River and Ocklawaha River, according to Dave Bowman, a former Army Corps of Engineers Biologist. The system greatly reduces the pollutants from flowing into the St. John's River, due to the cleansing action of the aquatic plants in this 10,000 acre lake. This has been monitored at 4 (previously 9) locations in the Ocklawaha monthly for over 10 years, with the data compiled through the "Lake Watch" program at University of Florida at Gainesville. What this has validated is that about half of the impurities of nitrogen and phosphorous are being removed by the cleansing action of Lake Ocklawaha.
Lake Ocklawaha, 44 years old, is now a healthy and vibrant habitat for a multitud of aquatic plants, fish, birds and other wildlife. This is due largely to the management of the lake by periodic drawdowns by the Army Corps of Engineers at the dam, which is usually once every four years. This action mimics the natural ebb and flow of droughts and floods. There is no stagnant and standing water. In fact, I've also witnessed fresh water springs bubbling up in several locations while kayaking on the lake. Manatees come and go freely through Buckman Lock, which opens multiple times each day. The lock tender is careful to watch for them and allows them to pass through.
There are concerns that many wells in the immediate area, belonging to homeowners and farmers, would be reduced or dry up if the dam were removed. This already occurs to a limited degree during the periodic drawdowns. As there is currently being evaluated for approval by the St. John's River Water Management District to allow up to 13.27 million gallons to be pumped daily from the aquifers by the Adena Springs Ranch at Fort McCoy, this would place even greater demands on the underground water sources in the immediate area. We are hopeful that this pumping by Adena Springs Ranch will not be approved.
Currently, Lake Ocklawaha has a very positive economc impact within Marion and Putnam Counties, primarily from boating and fishing, estimated by officials at $6 to $7 million per year. This positive impact would be greatly reduced with the removal of the lake. Several years ago both Marion and Putnam Counties passed resolutions to keep the dam and lake intact.
An untapped potential of the lake is a future potable water reservoir for Florida's ever increasing population. Florida currently exceeds 20 million residents and is the nation's fourth most populated State. The estimated potential from this 10,000 acre lake is 100 to 150 gallons per day as a water supply.
Even though this horrific act of destroying a centuries old forest and flooding 10,000 acres occured in the 1960's, removal of this dam and Lake Ocklawaha would never restore the forest in our lifetime, or our children's lifetimes. In a study for the restoration of Ocklawaha River, published by National Forests in Florida, Dept. of Agriculture, is stated "The mature, canopied forest is not expected to be present over the entire (restored) area for perhaps 75 years and may take over 100 years to resemble the pre-reservoir forest."
It would be economically and environmentally illogical to remove this dam. Two wrongs don't make a right.

Ms. Lawler's Viewpoint

Can Ms. Lawler really believe that artificial stews of rotting vegetation and herbicides are required to “purify” rivers meandering through naturally forested wetlands? I would urge her to extend her research beyond the “Save Rodman” website of Ed Taylor whose personal fantasies she has recycled here.

First, Florida DEP likes Rodman Dam almost as well as Taylor and Lawler. (It’s called “Kirkpatrick Dam” only by acolytes of the late Sen. George Kirkpatrick (R-Gainesville)--the deluded, ecologically illiterate legislator who blocked its removal for decades). DEP has a special talent for and special interest in ignoring real costs of reservoir maintenance. There has been but one serious study of these costs. That study was done by the Tampa engineering firm Greiner, Inc. which determined a figure of $1.34 million. And that figure doesn’t even include control of the alien weeds that infest the reservoir but don’t grow in running water.

Lawler’s $25.8 million figure for dam removal sounds like a terrific deal for restoring: blocked native fish such as striped bass, mullet, American eels, American shad, channel catfish, white catfish, Atlantic sturgeon, endangered shortnose sturgeon, to mention just a few; turtles; birds; mammals including endangered manatees (which, by the way, don’t “come and go” but are blocked for the most part by an $800,000 exclusion device that keeps some but not all from being crushed or drowned); and what was once Florida’s wildest and most beautiful river.

Lawler has it right that the reservoir is a “vibrant habitat for a multitude of aquatic plants, fish, birds and other wildlife.” Unfortunately many of them are alien invasives (such as tilapia, armored catfish, water hyacinth, and hydrilla), and the remainder (alligators, bass, pig frogs, red-winged blackbirds, grackles, gar, crappie, and the like) are abundant throughout the state whereas creatures sustained by the wild part of the river are fading away.

Instead of freshwater “bubbling” into the reservoir, the weight of the water suppresses the flow of major springs that had purified the St. John system.

If Lawler’s allegation that the reservoir brings in “$6 to $7 million per year” is correct, it sure doesn’t sound like much compared to the tourist attractions of healthy fish, wildlife, and a restored Ocklawaha River. Even if you don’t count these rich benefits, removal would pay for itself in 19 years.

And if Lawler had looked at the upper river, she’d know that dam removal would restore the forest far faster than “100 years.” Areas clearcut for the canal in the late 1960s are now indistinguishable from the virgin forest upstream.

Finally, the reservoir loses 25 million gallons of water daily to evaporation. If more drinking water is required, restore the river.

reply to Ted Williams

Mr. Williams, as I clearly stated, and again you take out of context and miss-quote, the numbers in my comments are not "mine" and not made up, all are from reliable sources. A list of these sources have been submitted to Audubon Magazine. I trust this was forwarded to you. My comments also cited information on the cleansing action monitored through the Lake Watch program at University of Florida at Gainesville, which is not information given to me by Ed Taylor, as you state, Mr. Williams. Ted Williams does tend to have a hard time reading information and responding to what was stated.
The time frame of 75 to 100+ years for re-growth of the forest is from a study done by the National Forest Service. I quoted from that study, it is not just my opinion. The area you refer to that was cleared in the 1960's was not underwater for 44+ years. Some logic should prevail here.
What none of the "rebuttals" to my comments has addressed is who will pay the $25.8 million cost (which was from 2007, may be more now) for restoration, in these dire economic times, with local, State and Federal budgets all being cut.
Another concern that I have is that if there is to be any kind of consensus on what will occur ultimately with Rodman, there needs to be constructive conversation between the opposing viewpoints, not disparaging and discrediting comments. I encourage constructive conversation and some working together. This environment is all of ours, and for the future generations. I cherish the environment and believe everyone responding does as well.

An Ecological Slum

Ms. Lawler: I took nothing “out of context.” You cited and posted incorrect information. And I corrected it. I never imagined that the numbers were yours; if they had been, I’d have noted that you have no more credibility or credentials than Ed Taylor. Taylor is not a “reliable source” as Karen Chadwick, Paul Nosca and others clearly demonstrate here. Nor is Florida DEP a “reliable source” for reasons I explained. The notion that a river meandering through naturally forested wetlands could somehow be “purified” by a thermally polluted, fetid, de-oxygenated stew of decaying alien vegetation and herbicides is preposterous. No ecologically literate person could believe this. If Lake Watch makes that claim, it provides us only with information about Lake Watch, not the reservoir. I have no doubt that the U.S. Forest Service (not the “National Forest Service”) estimated 75 years for re-growth. So what? Even if that estimate were accurate (and it clearly is not, because being underwater would not retard regrowth as is evident by the rapid regrowth just during the drawdowns), do you contend that we should not think about the generations who will enjoy this naturally renewed forest 75-100 years hence? That’s only one human lifetime. Again, $25.8 million is a terrific deal as dam removal goes. Check out the removal costs of equally useless dams that are coming down all across the U.S. What’s more, removal is a money maker. It would be an investment that would pay for itself in only 19 years even if you didn’t add all the values of a restored natural river and just figured the cost of maintaining the reservoir ($1.3 million a year). If you did add those values, removal would pay for itself in a year or two. What we absolutely do NOT need at this point is more “conversation” between those who value wild rivers and those who do not. It is impossible by nature for such talk to be “constructive.” Dam fans have been talking since the 1960s. The time for talk is over. Now is the time for action. You may “cherish the environment.” But you obviously do not cherish the NATURAL environment. A slum is an “environment.” And Rodman Reservoir is an ecological slum.

Wanna know something? It is

Wanna know something? It is no good for fishing either. My husband and I were up there last year, fished for two days and didn't get a nibble. AND that part about speed--not true either. We had to creep back to port, with me in the bow, directing around the dead trees. Even so, we damaged the boat's lower unit. Never again!

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