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Bring down the dam

Gov. Jeb Bush should exhibit the leadership of which he's capable and tear down the Ocklawaha River dam. The benefits to the environment and budget outweigh the cries of bass fishermen who want to keep it.

On most issues, Gov. Jeb Bush moves faster than the speed of sound and is able to leap tall policy issues with a single bound. Within a year of taking office, he had whipped out the veto pen on pork-barrel spending, killed the bullet train, pushed through tax cuts, acted to end affirmative action and gotten serious about Everglades restoration.

So why is the governor taking so long to do the right thing for another rare piece of Florida's environmental heritage: Why won't he tear down the Ocklawaha River dam?

For more than 30 years, the Kirkpatrick Dam (named for its chief legislative defender, Sen. George Kirkpatrick, R-Gainesville) has blocked the Ocklawaha, a once-wild waterway that borders the Ocala National Forest. The dam, which impounded almost one-fifth of the 80-mile river, was meant to be a link in the Cross Florida Barge Canal, an ill-conceived project that was finally halted over environmental concerns. Rodman Reservoir covers 9,000 acres, inundating 20 natural springs and degrading the Ocklawaha and the St. Johns River. Fish are becoming extinct; 18 species have disappeared from the Ocklawaha. Manatees are dying in the dam locks. Just recently, a much-studied 2,600-pound manatee named Hera was crushed to death.

If the environmental arguments are not enough to persuade the governor, the economic ones should. It will cost $9-million to $12-million to remove the dam, plug the barge canal and restore the river to its natural state. But it costs about a half-million dollars a year to operate and maintain the dam. In addition, about $600,000 in manatee-exclusion devices would have to be installed. And then there are the lawsuits. The reservoir covers some private land sold as easements back when the Cross Florida Barge Canal was being planned. But the canal did not happen, and some landowners are suing. The cost of paying for now-useless submerged land could easily run into the millions.

So who wants to hang on to an environmentally destructive, manatee-killing, money-sucking, lawsuit-spawning edifice? Bass fishermen. The pro-angler lobby says that if the dam goes and the river is restored to its wild state, a lot of bass lovers will be deprived and the local economy will capsize.

This is nothing but a big fish story. During the recent "Save Rodman Bass Tournament," the winning catch came from a stretch of river below the dam. Bass swim in free-flowing rivers, too.

Months ago, Gov. Bush declared he would base his decision "on science, not politics." Well, the scientific evidence has been in for years: The dam damages the Ocklawaha and the St. Johns. The fiscal evidence is in, too: The thing costs too much money.

The political speed bump lies in the state Senate, where Kirkpatrick, term-limited out of office after this year, is so attached to his namesake dam that he might introduce a bill declaring it a state park. This would be difficult, because part of the reservoir lies on federal property and a substantial portion of the dam itself is, in the eyes of the U.S. Forest Service, trespassing. Of course, logic doesn't always trouble our Legislature.

The governor's leadership can prevent the state from continuing to allow two precious rivers to be harmed merely to gratify one legislator's ego.