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The Ocklawaha delay

Published Oct. 12, 2005

Twenty-one years after work was halted on the Cross Florida Barge Canal, the Ocklawaha River finally has a chance for new life. Could it be possible that someone now would deny it?

The Canal Lands Advisory Committee, which was established to make recommendations on how the state should protect the canal lands, has made a curious declaration about the Ocklawaha. It has said, some 14 years after an exhaustive state and federal study determined the river should be returned to its natural free-flowing state, that the issue needs yet another three years and $3-million worth of study. How is that possible?

The Rodman Dam is the most visible and tragic reminder of the implausible Barge Canal effort. It was completed in 1968, choking off the Ocklawaha and destroying 9,000 acres of forest and 16 miles of river. The dam has created a shallow, weed-filled reservoir that has become a costly environmental menace. The stagnant, nutrient-laden water in the reservoir has produced fish kills, and forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to spend nearly $1-million a year on maintenance and operation of the dam.

Opening the dam and restoring the Ocklawaha is almost an assumption of the canal deauthorization. The Corps itself has recommended such action, and virtually every regulatory and academic study of the dam has agreed. The Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission has written that: "In the long run, the option to restore to original condition would foster the optimum, self-sustaining aquatic ecosystem of the Ocklawaha River Valley." Opening the dam also would save the state money almost immediately; the projected cost of restoring the Ocklawaha is $4-million _ roughly four years' worth of current operation costs.

Unfortunately, a few bass fishing camps, supported by one powerful state lawmaker, apparently have decided that the short-term approach is best. They want to keep the bass swimming together in one pond, even if that leads occasionally to fish kills and ultimately is harmful to the future of sport fishing in the river.

Such an obvious case of self-interest might be ignored if it weren't for the work of Sen. George Kirkpatrick, D-Gainesville. Kirkpatrick, for reasons he has not been eager to tell the public, has become a one-man lobbying force for the Rodman Dam. He has badgered university researchers and state agencies over which he has budgetary control, and he nearly single-handedly pressured the Canal Lands Committee into recommending a three-year study. For Kirkpatrick's obsession with keeping the remnants of the Cross Florida Barge Canal alive, the senator's local newspaper, the Gainesville Sun, has dubbed the Rodman Dam "Kirkpatrick's Folly."

Kirkpatrick is not looking for honest scientific assessment; he simply wants another delay. And the question about the Ocklawaha's future now is properly directed to the state Cabinet and the Legislature, which will assume control of the canal lands.

Is Florida going to let one senator hold up a process that has been moving ahead for two decades? Could the state seriously consider perpetuating the mistakes of the Cross Florida Barge Canal?