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.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service apparently lost the permit. No one appeared to even know about it until 1999, when White unearthed it with a state record request three months before it was to expire. This precipitated a lengthy environmental review by the state and a Forest Service record of decision for dam removal, but in the face of pressure from the bass-tournament lobby, the Forest Service refused to act.
The result is an aging, festering impoundment called Rodman Reservoir (though it provides no one with water) and, alternately, Rodman Pool (though there's no swimming because of the alligators). Despite a forecast for strong winds, we found it waveless on April 10.
No one unfamiliar with the unspoiled reaches of the Ocklawaha, the lost fish and wildlife, the lost springs, the 16 miles of ruined river, or the 10,000 acres of drowned forest would call the impoundment ugly--especially now that the water was coming back up and covering some of the muck and rotting timber. The previous winter Rodman Reservoir had been drawn down, as it is about every three years, to kill the alien vegetation, especially hydrilla, that depletes oxygen and impedes bass-boat traffic. Herbicides are also used, though sparingly these days. All this and the operation of Buckman Lock between the Ocklawaha and St. Johns rivers costs state taxpayers about $1 million per annum.
Nor is Rodman lifeless. As we paddled out from Kenwood Landing, the "oinks" of pig frogs rose from hundreds of acres of spatterdock. Boat-tailed grackles and red-winged blackbirds perched on dead cattails. In open water large alligators floated, distinguishable from the floating logs only by their slow passage or, when motionless, their eye ridges. A mature bald eagle hunched on a dead snag. On lower snags anhingas in breeding plumage dried their wings. Ospreys hovered. Gar and catfish swirled. And low, glitter-painted bass boats with huge outboard engines screamed up the flooded riverbed.
Like most manmade impoundments in the South, the reservoir exploded with bass in its early years, then started dying, choking on the rich biomass of decaying timber and forest duff. In 1985 the oxygen-swilling stew of bacteria and rotting vegetation killed an estimated 8.5 million fish; three years later it killed an estimated 2.5 million. Rodman defenders tell me major fish kills don't happen anymore, but Karen Ahlers says they're just not reported. "Two years ago we [the Putnam County Environmental Council] discovered a big gizzard-shad kill," she told me. "The lock tenders wouldn't let our guy take photos."
Since 1971 the sole justification for the dam has been bass-boat traffic and bass tournaments--not bass fishing itself. It's all about going fast in absurdly overpowered boats. The dam and lock shut out most endangered manatees, and if they get back into the system in big numbers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might insist on speed limits. If all you want to do is catch bass, you'll have better luck floating the Ocklawaha or St. Johns or driving to some of the 200,000 acres of natural lakes within 25 miles of the reservoir. "The impoundment duplicates something we have a tremendous amount of," says Audubon's Charles Lee. "And the dead river under it is something that's comparatively scarce."
As president of Save Rodman Reservoir, Inc. and from his seat on the Putnam County Commission, Ed Taylor crusades to "SAVE Rodman From Evil Destruction," as his card puts it. The impoundment was "as good as gone," he brags, until he started supplying "facts" about its tournament value. The Congressional effort to restore Clean Water Act protection to unnavigable waters that feed navigable ones is actually a plot by environmentalists and their federal allies to seize control "over all the watersheds in the United States," he warns his fellow bass boaters.
Why, I asked Taylor, should Florida taxpayers cough up $1 million a year to maintain a dam that serves no purpose? "Well," he replied, "one of Governor Jeb Bush's aides stopped me in the hall one day, and he asked me the same question. I said, 'We're standing in the capital building built in the middle of woods that deer and bear used to roam. Let's take it down.' He walked off and never did speak to me again."
Every Florida governor since Reubin Askew (with the exception of the current one, Rick Scott) has strongly advocated removal of Rodman Dam. In 1995 Governor Lawton Chiles ordered it taken out. It didn't happen. Every time removal appeared imminent, Florida lawmakers--whipped up by local politicians like State Senator George Kirkpatrick (R-Gainesville), State Senator Jim King (R-Jacksonville), and Gainesville Mayor-Commissioner Rodney Long--convinced their colleagues to keep the dam "in its natural state," as Long put it.
While the reservoir has provided additional habitat for some very common fish (including such aliens as tilapia and armored catfish), it has eliminated or harmed many more species than it has helped. In the middle of the reservoir we saw a mullet leap. A few make it through the lock, but they've basically been shut out of the system. They used to swarm up into Silver Springs, grazing on algae and surface scum, thereby removing some of the nutrients that now degrade water quality there and in the river.
The dam also blocks the migration of American eels, American shad, channel catfish, white catfish, Atlantic sturgeon, and endangered shortnose sturgeon. And it has extirpated most Florida-strain striped bass from the state by denying them access to their primary spawning habitat--the Ocklawaha and Silver rivers. Now the only stripers in the entire St. Johns system are non-reproducing, northern-strain hatchery fish.