The oldest environmental battle in Florida has taken a new turn.
Ever since Richard Nixon occupied the White House, environmental activists have been clamoring to tear down the dam that's blocking the Ocklawaha River from flowing freely through Central Florida.
The dam, built as part of the aborted Cross-Florida Barge Canal, created the 9,000-acre Rodman Reservoir. The reservoir is full of bass, which is why anglers have strongly resisted the dam's removal.
State officials say they are now closer than ever to tearing down the dam — except there's a problem no one foresaw.
A company that owns a recreational vehicle park on the shores of the reservoir wants to build a 400-slip marina. The marina, to be built on the Marion County side of the reservoir, would be complemented by a 10-foot-wide, 3,000-foot-long boardwalk along the shoreline.
Some environmental activists fear the marina permit is a ploy to prevent the river's restoration.
"If you've been on the natural parts of the Ocklawaha, you know that the river is simply not big enough anywhere in its reach to accommodate 400 boats," said Karen Ahlers of the Putnam County Environmental Council.
When environmental activists heard about the marina, "the first impression we had was shock and surprise," said John Thomas, the St. Petersburg attorney who represents the Putnam County Environmental Council. "Now my impression is that it's gamesmanship."
In fact, the leader of a group in favor of preserving the dam and reservoir said that's why he's in favor of the marina.
"We'd like to see anything and everything that keeps that dam in place," said Ed Taylor, a Putnam County commissioner who heads up the group Save Rodman Reservoir.
But David Miner, whose company, Miner's Marine Construction, is overseeing the project for the developer, said it's not just a ploy. The owner, Rebell Investors Corp., is sincere in wanting to develop the marina, he said.
If the state ever does succeed in tearing down the dam, Miner said, that won't be a problem for the marina. It would be built using floating docks, and they could adjust to any water level changes, he said.
Still, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection are opposing the marina. The DEP contends it "will be incompatible with … the planned restoration" of the Ocklawaha.
It isn't that the marina hurts the restoration, they say. It's the other way around.
When the dam is torn down, the river will again flow the way it used to — and the marina won't be anywhere near the water.
"Once the river has been freed and the dam removed, there will be water only in the river channel itself," explained Stan Inabinet, the DEP's Ocklawaha restoration project manager. "And there are no private lands anywhere near the river channel."
Instead, the river would run through the Ocala National Forest, the way it used to.
The 7,200-foot dam and its reservoir were built as part of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, a project that was supposed to let barges slice straight across from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the dam in 1968, it backed the Ocklawaha up for 16 miles, inundating a big part of the national forest.
However, in 1971 environmental groups persuaded a judge to issue an injunction stopping work because of the potential damage to the underground aquifer and the environment in general. Nixon then pulled the plug on the project.
For the next 20 years, environmental groups tried to get the dam torn down. Finally, in 1991 Congress turned the dam over to the state to do with it whatever state officials wanted. Gov. Lawton Chiles and Gov. Jeb Bush both pledged to tear down the dam, but each failed to persuade state lawmakers to spend any money on the project.
Instead, legislative leaders contended that the reservoir had become such a great place to fish for bass, it was too important to the Central Florida economy to change it. They refused to approve any money for the project.
The dam is now named for the reservoir's staunchest defender, the late Sen. George Kirkpatrick. Meanwhile the rest of the canal route has been turned into a 110-mile greenway named for the woman who spearheaded the fight against the canal, Marjorie Harris Carr.
Four years ago DEP officials started pulling together the information they needed to get permits from another state agency and the Corps of Engineers to restore the river, a project now estimated to cost $21 million. They figure they are now about six months from completing that step and actively pursuing the permits.
If the marina is approved, freeing the river may not hurt the docks themselves because they float, Inabinet said. But instead of water, he said, "they will just be floating on top of all the sediment left behind from the reservoir."