Communication Builds Our Community

Rodman Opponents Ready to Gamble Again that Florida Will Finally Free the Ocklawaha

Public comment portal sparks hope - and what about the manatees?

Do you play the lottery? I've been known to purchase a ticket or two when the payoff gets enough zeroes. The fact that I am still writing for a living should tell you how good I am at picking numbers.

Once, I ducked into Publix to purchase a Powerball ticket and discovered a knot of people around a well-tanned, white-haired customer. It was former Gov. Charlie Crist in a blue blazer, silk tie, and tassel loafers, waiting his turn to wager a couple of bucks.

"You can't win if you don't play," he explained. (The fact that he became a congressman and is now running for governor again suggests he didn't hit the jackpot, either.)

I think a similar give-it-a-shot spirit is driving a group of 60 civic and environmental groups working together under the name Free the Ocklawaha River Coalition. Like those of us who regularly queue up for lottery tickets, they have played and lost repeatedly - yet here they are in line again, ready to try their luck one more time.

"I'm hoping for the best," Margaret Spontak, who chairs the group, told me this week.

They have gotten their hopes up over a fight in Central Florida that's been going on since a Democrat named Lyndon Johnson held the White House. Put on your tie-dye T-shirts, kids, we're jumping in the Hot Tub Time Machine to zoom back to the Swingin' Sixties!

The year is 1968. The Beatles have released the "White Album," Martin Luther King Jr. has been gunned down in Memphis, and Barbra Streisand's "Funny Girl" is beating "2001: A Space Odyssey" at the box office. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has unveiled an expensive construction project then known as the Rodman Dam. Groovy, baby!

The Rodman blocked the Ocklawaha River, inundating 9,000 acres of land, including 600 acres of trees in the Ocala National Forest. This was supposed to be the first step in constructing the Cross-Florida Barge Canal, allowing ships to slice across the state from Palatka to Yankeetown (or vice versa) instead of going down around the Keys.

The Corps thought this dam thing was a big improvement on the naturally wild Ocklawaha, because the Corps always wants to snap a leash on nature. From the perspective of 2021, though, the canal sure seems like one of the dumbest ideas ever to surface in a state that has a reputation for hatching dumb ideas (the 2000 butterfly ballot, releasing pet pythons in the Everglades, building houses where storm surges will hit, etc.)

The barge canal, as its name implies, was designed back in Depression days to create jobs and accommodate an expected flood of barge traffic. But by the 1960s, when it finally got underway, the need for make-work government jobs had diminished, as had the demand for barges to transport goods (thanks, interstate highway system!). That made the high cost of canal construction hard to justify. The word "boondoggle" came up a lot.

Worse, to make the canal work would require the Corps to cut down into the state's aquifer, where the canal's seawater would turn our primary source of drinking water brackish.

Still, the Corps was game to give it a whirl. After all, this was the can-do, ask-not Sixties.

Fortunately, before the destruction reached the point of making Florida uninhabitable, the canal builders ran into a roadblock in the person of Marjorie Harris Carr, one of Florida's three influential Marjories (the others being Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings).

Canal backers sneered that she was "a mere Micanopy housewife." But the tenacious Carr started a group called Florida Defenders of the Environment, and they filed a lawsuit that in 1971 blocked further work on the canal.

Then Johnson's Republican successor, President Richard Nixon, pulled the plug on its funding "to prevent a past mistake from causing permanent damage" to the Ocklawaha, he said.

But the dam remained, and it remains with us still. It's a memorial to our narrow escape from canal craziness, and its reservoir is a fairly popular bass-fishing spot that some people have taken to calling "Lake Ocklawaha."

Carr and her group fought for decades to get it torn down. Both Democratic (Lawton Chiles) and Republican (Jeb Bush) governors joined the battle, too - to no avail. It should tell you how long this fight's been going on that the current head of the Florida Defenders of the Environment is Carr's granddaughter, Jenny.

Over and over, the people who wanted to get rid of the dam thought they had a shot at knocking it down, only to discover they had bought another losing lottery ticket. Meanwhile, the folks at the organization called Save Rodman Reservoir kept winning like a Cassadaga psychic picking Powerball numbers week after week.

Save Rodman's president, Steve Miller, told me they defeated one effort involving city folks from Jacksonville "because they didn't know there's a bunch of whip-ass rednecks in Putnam County!"

Over and over, legislative leaders listened to the anglers, not the environmental activists, and blocked every effort to demolish the dam. One, Sen. George Kirkpatrick, was so successful at killing demolition efforts that, after he died, it was renamed the Kirkpatrick Dam in his honor. Meanwhile, in one of those only-in-Florida juxtapositions, the remainder of the canal route has become the Marjorie Harris Carr Greenway.

Now, at long last, Spontak and her allies hope there may be a resolution they like, all because a portal has opened. Not a portal to the past, but a portal to the public.

Diving into the portal

They're excited because two weeks ago the St. Johns River Water Management District announced it was setting up an online portal featuring a questionnaire about the future of the Kirkpatrick Dam and the Rodman Reservoir.

George Kirkpatrick Dam at Rodman Reservoir. Credit: Sandra Friend, USDA Forest Service.

"The online feedback will help inform future key decisions regarding the best path forward - continued management and operation of the structures or an alternative restoration strategy," the agency said in a news release so terse that Ernest Hemingway would have begged for further details.

The questionnaire first asks for your name, email address, where you live, and whether you own or work at a business that relies on the dam and reservoir. Then it asks five more questions, starting with "Have you visited Rodman Reservoir/Kirkpatrick Dam?" and "What would you like to see happen with the Rodman Reservoir and Kirkpatrick Dam moving forward?"

The other questions ask for "the most important piece of information that supports your position" and "What would be your biggest concern if your desired outcome is not achieved?"

The last question is kind of amusing, given the decades of antagonism between pro- and anti-Rodman forces: "Is there any scenario short of fully achieving your desired outcome you could support?"

That's likely to be the one question everyone answers: "Not just no, but HELL no!"

Both sides say they welcome the survey, sure that their side will be the most persuasive. And both sides don't quite believe the water district is just asking questions and has no particular agenda.

"They tell me, with a straight face, that they're just collecting information," Miller said, sounding skeptical. "I really want to believe them, but the way those questions are worded, it's clear they have a bias."

"It's driving us crazy trying to figure out what's going on behind the scenes," Spontak said.

So, I got on the phone with a water management district official named Tom Frick and asked what prompted the agency to post this questionnaire right at this moment. Is something going to happen?

"We are just trying to get feedback on the potential future disposition of the dam and reservoir," said Frick, the water district's director of strategic planning.

Once the water district's public comment portal closes on Oct. 22, Frick told me, "we will make all the information available" to the state agency that owns and operates the dam, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. What happens after that is up to the DEP.

The one thing Frick could tell me for sure was that as of Monday, 3,500 people had already expressed their opinions. He added this understatement: "There's a lot of interest."

I thought his use of the words "future disposition" might be a clue to what was going on here. Although officially there's been no acknowledgment that a 53-year-old dam might have structural problems, the fact is that it's 53 years old. According to Spontak, the average passerby can see cracks around it.

Maybe, I thought, what's prompted this questionnaire is that it's time for the state to either spend millions on a major upgrade or knock it down.

For what it's worth, Miller estimates the dam needs $3 million to $3.5 million worth of repairs, but he contends the reservoir serves so many anglers that it's well worth the expense.

When I questioned Frick about the financial situation, he professed ignorance about the dam's condition or the cost. He referred all those questions to the DEP.

When I contacted the DEP press office, I got an emailed statement from press secretary Alexandra Kuchta. She called the Ocklawaha and St. Johns River "critical resources to the state of Florida" that the DEP is committed to protecting.

But she said that this questionnaire about the dam is strictly routine.

"The department conducts a thorough assessment of the dam every two years," she said, explaining that the last assessment was in 2019, so it's time for another one. That new one, due at the end of 2021, "will include the status/condition of the dam as well as recommended repairs and potential costs associated with these repairs. Also, there is currently no cost estimate to remove the dam."

She also said this: "To be clear, there is no pending action before the department regarding the dam."

Maybe, though, there should be.

Trapped in the locks

When I talked to Spontak, I asked why she's willing to play this game of chance one more time. Isn't she tired of losing? She said the timing is right this time. She sees a lot of crises rising right now that make a strong case for yanking out the dam.

No. 1 on her crisis list: Florida's manatee die-off that began back in the winter. As of Sept. 24, the number of dead had hit a record-shattering 957. The prior record of 830 was set in 2013 because of a persistent red tide toxic algae bloom. We're probably going to surpass 1,000 before Thanksgiving.

Many of this year's manatee deaths were caused by malnutrition. Sensitive to cold, they sought a winter refuge in places like the Indian River Lagoon, where thousands of acres of seagrass had been killed by pollution-fueled algae blooms, so they had nothing to eat.

According to Miller, the Kirkpatrick Dam is a boon to our beleaguered manatees. More than 700 have navigated its lock system, he said, in some cases waiting patiently hours for lock-keepers to open up and let them through. Once they arrive at the reservoir, he said, "the Rodman supplies ample vegetation for them to eat."

I checked that assertion with Patrick Rose, a former state manatee biologist who's been executive director of the Save the Manatee Club for decades. He scoffed.

Some manatees may be swimming through the locks to get to the Rodman Reservoir, he said, but a lot more would use a free-flowing Ocklawaha River that allows for easy access to Silver Springs. That's not to mention the 20 freshwater springs that were inundated by the reservoir that would once again be available for their use.

There's also the matter of the manatees that get trapped in the locks. The Kirkpatrick Dam's lock structure has been known to squish a few sea cows, turning them into the aquatic version of Flat Stanley.

"Manatees continue to be harmed by the water control system," Rose said. "Most manatees make it through safely, but there are still some occasional problems."

Given that we're seeing a record-breaking year for manatee deaths, and that next winter is likely to bring a second round, should the state continue operating a dam that, every now and then, kills one?

Right now, when a manatee gets into the dam's locks, it's running the risk of never coming back out. That's not the kind of government-sponsored gambling I want to support.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of five books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2020, is Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther. The Florida Heritage Book Festival recently named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.


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