Time Capsule: Canal Threatens Florida's Oklawaha River
As the fatal impact of the project became evident, conservation organizations wrote in protest to the President, who had been so concerned that the beauty of unspoiled waterways “might become only a memory.” A typical reply cane from the Bureau of the Budget: “The values of preserving the river in its natural state must be weighed against the benefits of developing a more economical transportation route. During the course of many years, the congressional and other representatives of the State of Florida have strongly supported the Cross-Florida project. They must have seriously weighed the alternatives and decided that the benefits of the project outweighed the adverse impacts on the beauty of the river.” They “must have” but they didn’t. An alternative route which would have saved the Oklawaha was recommended by the conservationists but there is no evidence that it was ever “seriously weighed.” As for the “benefits” — benefits to whom? To a small group of shippers, to real estate speculators, and other local business interests profiting from the taxpayer’s money. The Oklawaha was scratched off the wild rivers list without a fight.
The idea of a canal across Florida is not new. It originated during the administration of Thomas Jefferson, as a means of eluding the pirates who roamed the West Indies, and of facilitating the transportation of mail from Washington to New Orleans. (Neither of these concerns is pressing today.) For more than half a century the scheme lay dormant, then during the depression of the Thirties is was briefly but unsuccessful revived as a make-work project. During World War II it was unearthed again as a means of protecting shipping from submarine attack on the passage from the Atlantic to the Gulf. Studies have showed, however, that a “ship canal” deep enough to accommodate the draft of seagoing vessels would raise havoc with the water table. But the Engineers now had a congressional authorization (passed in 1942) and they were not going to give it up. So they switched to a shallow “barge canal” and went ahead, proceeding under an authorization obtained more than twenty years earlier—voted during the war for a different purpose and at a time when almost no one realized how quickly our wilderness resources were going to disappear. And having picked a route that would destroy the river, having promised but failed to study alternatives, the Corps falsely claimed that it has no authority to change this route without a vote of Congress.
The route of the projected canal runs from Palatka on the St. Johns River to Yankeetown on the west coast. The impact of the western section on the Gulf Coast’s remaining wilderness is alarming, but the stretch we are concerned with here lies along the Oklawaha River valley upstream to Silver Springs—the classic scenic voyage of riverboats in times past. Two dams will completely kill this stretch: Rodman Dam near the mouth, already in operation; and Eureka Dam, built but not yet functioning, which will impound the river as far up as the Springs. In the circumstances, is the battle already lost? Must the canal be pushed ahead, despite the evidence that it will be (in the words of the leading biologist) “an environmental disaster?” The Secretary of State of Florida says that it must: “Both intelligence and, for those of you who wish, The Bible dictate that man is to have dominion over all the resources of the Earth. Since most of us either believe in our own intelligence and/or in the Bible, let us be about the task of exerting our dominion over these resources.” An admirably clear statement of the philosophy that is bringing our world to the brink of ruin.
Even in purely economic terms, the folly of the canal has been demonstrated again and again since its inception. When the project was reactivated in 1963, a former Army Engineer, using the Corps’ own figures, showed that costs would far exceed so-called “benefits.” Since then costs have gone up, and borrowing rates on money have soared. By the Corps’ own admission, at the present long-term government interest rate, the return on the investment today would only be 92 cents on the dollar. It is far less if one includes honest figures for weed control (estimated at about $8 million a year) and omits that imaginary asset, “recreation.” The two are closely linked. Once the cool, fast-flowing Oklawaha has been turned into a series of warm, shallow lakes, nurients will accumulate and water weeds take over. Poisoned, they will rot on the bottom, taking oxygen from the water. In the words of a Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission’s report: “The ecosystem which formerly supported high-quality fishing, hunting, and esthetic values is in jeopardy because the new system is a nutrient trap and functions similarly to a sewage treatment polishing pond.” Recreation? No one who studies the balance sheet can disagree with the comment of Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin: “Pure blubber in the pork barrel.”
“But we can’t stop now,” say the promoters, “after so much money has already been spent.” The same was said about the Everglades jetport. There a national park was threatened with extinction. Here it is a wild river valley which, under protection by the federal government, could become a superb wildlife sanctuary and recreational area. Much of the Oklawaha remains untouched. Even the lower stretch of the river will eventually recover if the water is released from Rodman Dam; wounds heal more quickly here than they do in northern climes. To get an impression of what is at stake, my wife and I decided to take a look for ourselves—first from the air and then, more slowly and intimately, on the river itself.