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Governor sounds the death knell for dam at Rodman

Published Sep. 27, 2005

A federal deadline finally forces an end to the battle over restoring the Ocklawaha River.

After two years of sitting on the fence, Gov. Jeb Bush announced Friday what he wants to do with the controversial dam at Rodman Reservoir: Tear it down and restore the Ocklawaha River.

"This is consistent with the governor's efforts to restore some of the state's largest waterways," said Bush aide Colleen Castille, naming the Everglades, St. Johns River and Lake Okeechobee as examples. "We just think it's the right thing to do."

It was also the only choice, said Bob Sparks, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The DEP faced a Friday deadline to tell federal forestry officials what the state planned to do with the 7,200-foot-long dam, part of which occupies land belonging to the Ocala National Forest. The federal agency has made it clear it would like to see dam and reservoir removed from its property.

"We were hearing from the feds, "Here's what you need to do on our land. You do it, or we'll do it for you,' " Sparks said.

There was a monetary incentive, too, Sparks said. If the state takes the lead in tearing down the dam, federal money would help pay for the cost. But if the federal government removes it, federal officials would stick the state with the whole bill.

So a little after 4 p.m., DEP officials notified the U.S. Forest Service that they would like to tear down the dam. They did not include specifics, so federal officials are withholding judgment on whether they will approve the state's plans.

News of Bush's decision produced a ripple of excitement among environmental activists who have been pushing for three decades to rip out the dam.

""This is one of the best environmental decisions we have seen in the last two decades," said Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida senior vice president.

Bush is not the first governor to call for tearing down the dam, originally named Rodman just like the reservoir. Gov. Lawton Chiles repeatedly pushed to rip it out, but the Democrat failed to persuade powerful North Florida lawmakers to appropriate any money for the work. Instead they sided with dam supporters, who say the reservoir is a wonderful place to fish for bass and thus important to the Central Florida economy.

The lawmaker who fought the hardest to keep the dam was Sen. George Kirkpatrick, R-Gainesville, for whom it was recently renamed. He and some other supporters of the Kirkpatrick Dam are being forced out of office by term limits.

Unlike Chiles, Bush, a Republican, has gotten nearly everything he wanted from the Republican-led Legislature in his first two years as governor. That is what makes his decision so important, said longtime river activist David White.

"With the governor's leadership this can happen," he said. "What has held this up is the Legislature."

Sparks said Kirkpatrick and incoming Senate President John McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney were notified of Bush's decision, and because of the squeeze by federal officials, "it is safe to say they were understanding of the governor's position."

Kirkpatrick aide Mike Murtha agreed, noting that dam supporters would much prefer to have the state set the pace of river restoration than a federal agency less responsive to the voters.

Nevertheless Bush's announcement angered the head of the citizen's group Save Rodman Reservoir, who has long believed Bush someday would join their side. Bush repeatedly has avoided taking a position on the issue since he was quizzed about it during the 1998 gubernatorial campaign.

"It shocks us that he took either side, especially in a year when his brother is running for president," Save Rodman president Ed Taylor said. He promised his group would sue to block destruction of the dam, arguing that state law forbids draining a lake and that technically the reservoir is "Lake Ocklawaha."

Although dam supporters have contended that restoring the river could cost at least $60-million, a state engineering study pegged the price at $12-million over three years.

However, Sparks said the total price tag and timetable remain a question mark at this point because the state will first need to deal with a potential nitrate pollution problem affecting Silver Springs.

The dam and reservoir are remnants of one of Florida's oldest environmental battles. The Cross Florida Barge Canal was supposed to let barges slice straight across the peninsula from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. To build it, the Army Corps of Engineers flattened thousands of cypress trees along the 80-mile river. When the dam was completed in 1968 it backed the Ocklawaha up for 16 miles, flooding 9,000 acres and drowning any trees still standing.

The state's fledgling environmental movement dithered about what to do about the canal until they were galvanized by activist Marjorie Harris Carr, who was upset the Ocklawaha was being destroyed.

Under Carr's leadership activists persuaded President Richard Nixon to halt further construction.

But the dam remained, a hazard for endangered manatees crushed in its locks. Fish kills in the 1980s wiped out more than 10-million fish. Ripping out the dam will cure those ills, say river activists, who contend the river will largely restore itself.

"Sometimes you have to yield to nature and realize it's dynamic," DEP Secretary David Struhs said Friday. "That means removing the dam."

_ Staff writer Julie Hauserman contributed to this story.

History on the Ocklawaha

1820s: Army engineers visualize transforming the meandering Ocklawaha River into a great, straight canal across Florida, linking Atlantic commerce to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi.

1930s: Canal boosters persuade President Franklin Roosevelt to start a sea-level canal because the project would create jobs. At the groundbreaking ceremony, FDR prematurely hits a remote hookup to blow the first charge of dynamite, interrupting a speech by the canal's loudest proponent. Congress, however, cuts off funding in 1936 after 6,000 workers had cleared 4,000 acres of trees and moved 13,000 cubic yards of dirt.

1942: Fear of German U-boats lurking off Florida's coasts prompts Congress to authorize the Cross Florida Barge Canal, but funds aren't authorized for 22 years.

February 1964: Army Corps of Engineers began dredging a high-level canal using a series of dams that would bisect Florida from Palatka to Crystal River. President Lyndon Johnson and family attend groundbreaking celebration in Palatka.

1968: Rodman Dam, one of five locks planned for the finished canal, is completed. The Rodman Reservoir is one of two planned.

1971: Environmental groups win a federal court injunction and persuade President Richard Nixon to halt construction on the 107-mile Cross Florida Barge Canal.

1990: President George Bush officially hands control of the defunct canal to the state.

1992: Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Florida Cabinet vote to remove the dam and restore the river. Legislators who champion keeping the Rodman Dam and reservoir, led by Sen. George Kirkpatrick of Gainesville, respond by requiring the state to study the economic and environmental consequences first.

1994: State Department of Environmental Protection completes study that insists the river be restored.

Spring 1995: Legislators insert a proviso in budget to maintain the Rodman dam until a final decision is made.

June 1995: Chiles calls the proviso unconstitutional and tells DEP to apply for demolition permits.

March 1998: Despite pressure from 30 environmental groups, legislators won't release $3-million to remove the dam. Two months later, Rodman Dam is renamed the George Kirkpatrick Dam. It sits in the middle of the Marjorie Harris Carr Parkway, named at the same time for a longtime opponent of the dam.

January 2000: State renews long-standing permit to dismantle the dam.

Friday: Gov. Jeb Bush says he wants to tear down the George Kirkpatrick Dam.