Column: Knock a hole in dam and just let Ocklawaha River flow

Published April 30, 2013

One of the state's loveliest rivers is being crippled to operate a glorified fishing hole at a yearly cost of half a million taxpayer dollars. But even though bad environmental policy in Florida grows faster than bacteria on dog poop, we have a chance every once in a while to reverse years of venality and myopia, to do something that will benefit Floridians now and in the future: Free the Ocklawaha River from Rodman Dam.

The Florida Wildlife Federation (of which I am a board member) and Florida Defenders of the Environment intend to file suit in federal court to force the issue.

No, I'm not holding my breath either. But this dam, built in the 1960s as the crowning piece of the boondoggle known as the Cross-Florida Barge Canal, does absolutely nothing useful. It is the only dam in the United States with no purpose, no reason for being. It is not needed for navigation and generates no power. It just squats there, imperiling the habitat of manatees and two kinds of rare and ancient species of fish.

Governors from Reubin Askew, who took office in 1971, to Charlie Crist all agreed that the dam should go. Lawton Chiles actually got close to doing something about it, ordering his Department of Environmental Protection to begin restoring the Ocklawaha. But the "lake," created by flooding part of the Ocala National Forest, had become an angler's dream, and Sen. George Kirkpatrick, a powerful Alachua County Democrat, fought to save the dam. Chiles and Kirkpatrick got into one of those spitting matches that make Florida politics the wonder of democracies everywhere, while Bubba Bass reared up on his caudal fin attacking renowned environmentalist Marjorie Harris Carr, originator of the Cross Florida Greenway, as well as legions of scientists and regular citizens as nothing but elitist greenies who didn't understand the sacred way of the bucketmouth.

That was 20-odd years ago. Now Marjorie Carr is dead, George Kirkpatrick is dead, and the dam is still alive. And if it were left up to Gov. Rick Scott's DEP and the glacial movement of the federal government, this is where we'll be for another 20 years.

But here's the thing: The dam violates the Endangered Species Act. Habitat is impaired by saltwater collecting in the lower Ocklawaha River. It hurts manatees, Atlantic sturgeon and snub nose sturgeon. Some locals insist they've never seen a sturgeon anywhere near the Ocklawaha — which is kind of like those Romney voters before November's election insisting that since no pollster had ever called them or anyone they knew, then Ipsos, YouGov, USA Today, CNN, Quinnipiac and Marist must all be wrong.

To top it all off, the state is supposed to have a permit to spend your money operating the dam and the reservoir, as a lot of its on federal land. They don't. DEP's just ignoring the feds on this one.

The Ocklawaha is special. The 19th century poet Sidney Lanier called it "the sweetest water lane in the world," 150 miles "of pure delight betwixt hedge-rows of oaks and cypresses and palms and magnolias and mosses and vines." Richard Nixon, when he put the kibosh on the ill-judged barge canal in 1971, said the river, fed by a succession of springs, is "a uniquely beautiful, semitropical stream, one of a very few of its kind in the United States."

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The fishing lobby's got its own TV channel. And money. What it hasn't got is a good argument. Bass will not suddenly abandon Putnam County. Before the dam, there were bass in Silver Springs and the Ocklawaha, too. I'm sure that the guys with their $40,000 Ranger boats and $250 La Croix Legend rods will still be able to get their bass and claim, in the time-honored manner, "mine's bigger than yours."

Opponents of freeing the Ocklawaha say it'll be too expensive and hurt fishing. But gradually drawing down the "lake," allowing cypress trees to grow again, doesn't cost anything. Getting appropriate permits and knocking a nice-sized hole in Rodman will take maybe a couple million bucks. I'll bet the DEP and the governor blow more than that on all those lawsuits they keep losing.

We're spending $500,000 a year maintaining a pointless dam. Two or three million to let nature fix the Ocklawaha, and Silver Springs, Adena Springs and the whole surrounding ecosystem, sounds like a good deal. Fishing will still flourish. So will Silver Springs, Adena Springs and the St. Johns.

Diane Roberts is author of "Dream State," a memoir of Florida. She teaches at Florida State University. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.