Has One Florida Dam's Day Finally Come?
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.
At a spot 30 feet from the impoundment’s south shore, Ahlers signaled Condon and me to stop paddling. “We’re over Blue Spring,” she said. “I swam in it when I was a kid. It was canopied, and its run to the Ocklawaha was almost a mile long. There were so many fish. . . .” And her voice trailed off.
Blue Spring is one of at least 20 springs destroyed by the dam. Not only are they inundated but the weight of water suppresses the flow that used to maintain water quality in the St. Johns system. These springs and Silver Springs provided important cold-weather refuge to manatees, now endangered. All but a few that slip through the lock are eliminated from the reservoir and upper river. Springs still accessible to manatees elsewhere in Florida are drying up as groundwater is diverted for human use. So manatees increasingly depend on heated outfall from power plants. But some of these sources are drying up, too, as plants shift to closed cooling systems. According to Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation for Save the Manatee, a restored Ocklawaha would “provide hundreds and hundreds of manatees with winter habitat and get them away from artificial, unreliable sources of warm water.”
Paddling north again, we entered a ghost forest of moldering trees on part of the national forest right-of-way that hadn’t been cleared. Most had rotted off at 18 feet and, with the reservoir not yet full, protruded four feet above the surface. But every few minutes we fetched up on stumps just below the surface and hidden by the dirty water. The impoundment is a scary, dangerous place, especially for motorboats. So many props and lower units had broken off on stumps that the bass-boat lobby prevailed on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to raise the level from 18 feet to between 20 and 21 feet, thereby drowning 5,300 additional acres of public forest. “Watching this and the rest of the forest die over 40 years was sickening,” remarked Ahlers.
From 1966 to 1968 she also watched the clearing, much of it done by the caterpillar-treaded, 22-foot-high, 306-ton “Crusher Crawler” built at the Jacksonville Shipyard. “The mechanical marvel . . . mows down trees and pushed them underground as though they were matchsticks,” effused the Orlando Sentinel. And that was the problem. The dead wood provides an endless source of nutrients for alien weeds. Governor Chiles called the Crusher Crawler a “colossal failure,” complaining that trees kept “popping up like corks, and the Corps is now having to spend tremendous sums of money keeping a dredge out picking up the logs, piling them on the banks for burning.” They’re still popping up today, but now they just accumulate along the shore.
"We do not build dams for religious purposes,” as former Interior Secretary and river advocate Bruce Babbitt liked to say. We just keep them for religious purposes, and in Florida that would be competitive bass fishing. But the pro-Rodman ranks may be thinning. Senators Kirkpatrick and King are dead. Mayor-Commissioner Long is out of office. And thanks to the FDE and the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Forest Service appears to have been rousted from timidity and torpor.
After I’d said goodbye to my companions I drove up onto the dam. Gazing out over the brown, stump-filled, snag-lined expanse of reservoir, I recalled two passages I’d copied into my notes from Ditch of Dreams—one from the Florida Waterways Committee’s 1962 promo: “Several hundred miles of waterfront property will be created by the Canal—thousands of acres of beautiful crystal clear lakes will surge into being . . . with sandy shores and beaches providing countless, unlimited natural swimming, picnic, and camping areas.” The other passage, a 1970 pronouncement by the Corps, reads as follows: “The barge canal will save the Ocklawaha from nature.”
But Nathaniel Reed, who fights as tirelessly for fish and wildlife now as when he helped run Nixon’s Interior Department, told me this: “What a great example of restoration it would be to remove the Rodman Dam. Let’s watch and marvel over the revegetation of the empty flats and cheer as the clear, clean river runs its merry way into the St. Johns.”