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.
Below the forest canopy is a lush understory of shrubs and wildflowers. Blue damselflies skip across the surface, their ranks swelling as the day warms. The croaking of red-bellied woodpeckers and the whistling of cardinals is nearly constant.
We flush and reflush great and snowy egrets, green herons, great blues, little blues, belted kingfishers, and wood ducks. Pileated woodpeckers and white ibises cross over the canopy. Coots, gallinules, and pied-billed grebes bob through the yellow blooms of spatterdock. Red-shouldered hawks, all unseen, shout from dark timber. The brilliant yellow plumage of a male prothonotary warbler shows on a low branch as we eat our lunch on a sandbar under a bluff raised by an ancient earthquake.
Around every bend Florida cooters and red-bellied turtles, sometimes five to a log, survey us with shrewd, half-closed eyes, most refusing to bestir themselves. Basking on higher ground are alligators--mostly juveniles and also unafraid, although now and then we are startled by a loud splash.
As we move downstream the coontail thins, revealing more sand patches. Save for the overabundant coontail in the first five or six miles, we find the Ocklawaha as Bartram found it--"a just representation of the peaceable and happy state of nature which existed before the fall."
Ten miles downstream from the old steamboat stop of Gore's Landing, the unique river becomes less so as it starts to feel the effects of Rodman Dam. The plants least tolerant of standing water--bays, Dahoon hollies, and cabbage palms--thin, sicken, and disappear. Then the ashes and maples go and, finally, even the cypresses and tupelos.
Written in this progression of dead and dying trees is a timeline of habitat destruction dating to the closing of the dam in 1968. The canal was hugely unpopular then. In fact, it was hugely unpopular even at the height of the Great Depression with the nation desperate for work. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, who opposed the project on both financial and environmental grounds, rejected the Ship Canal Authority's original loan application. President Roosevelt was in favor but blew with the political winds, promising funding and releasing a little when support surged, then reneging in the face of opposition from citrus growers, railroads, and conservationists.
A compelling argument befell canal promoters when German U-boats started taking out U.S. shipping on the Atlantic. "The submarines and Adolph are aiding us," the director of Florida's Canal Authority, Walter Coachman, brazenly intoned.
From day one the canal was pushed by Democratic presidents. Truman liked it at least as much as Roosevelt but couldn't wangle appropriations; Eisenhower had no interest. Kennedy requested major funding; Johnson secured it. And on February 27, 1964, Johnson presided over a second groundbreaking, this one at Palatka. "The challenge of modern society is to make the resources of nature useful," he declared. And, with that, he knocked a policeman from his horse by setting off 150 pounds of dynamite spiked with oil and charcoal for effect.
In June 1970, amid great fanfare provided by the Corps' PR firm, a small, obsolete barge only half loaded with dolomite (a mineral used in fertilizer) attempted to negotiate a completed section of canal on the Gulf side and promptly got stuck. Canal Authority chairman L.C. Ringhaver hadn't realized the accuracy of his earlier pronouncement that this shipment would be "the forerunner of things to come."
Nixon killed the canal not because he cared about the Ocklawaha or knew anything about the project but because he perceived doing so to be a fine way of tucking it to the Democrats. As late as October 1970 he was clueless enough to ask Claude Kirk, Florida's governor, about "this canal" that people, especially Kirk, had been complaining about. "Are you building it?" he inquired.
"No, you are," responded the governor.
Pushing Nixon into the decision were (most notably) Interior Secretary Walter Hickel; Council on Environmental Quality chair Russell Train; environmental adviser John Whitaker; and Nathaniel Reed (then environmental adviser to Governor Kirk but soon to join the Nixon administration as Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks). No sooner had the president issued his order to save what he called the "uniquely beautiful" Ocklawaha than he received a tongue-lashing from his pal Bebe Rebozo of Key Biscayne. Nixon promptly instructed his staff to reverse course, but Whitaker, as he recalled to Steven Noll and David Tegeder (see Ditch of Dreams; University Press of Florida, 2009), "did what all good aides do . . . nothing, hoping the storm would blow over." It did.
As David White (formerly the FDE's Ocklawaha River coordinator and now directing Gulf of Mexico restoration for the National Wildlife Federation) explains: "Congress didn't officially deauthorize the canal until 1990, at which time the Forest Service said to the state, 'Okay, when are you gonna get all this water off our land?' Transferring ownership of the structures to Florida was going to take a while, so the Forest Service gave the state a five-year special-use permit, a binding contract that required it to remove the structures 'in a reasonable amount of time' or the U.S. could do it and charge the expense to the state."