Kill the Kirkpatrick dam. Time to drain Florida’s Rodman Reservoir | Editorial
The much needed move has been a long time in coming.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published March 17, 2022

The time has come to breach the Kirkpatrick Dam. The dam that created the Rodman Reservoir southeast of Gainesville should never have been built. The structure is an unfortunate leftover of one of the worst construction projects ever imposed on the state. It should have been removed when Gov. Lawton Chiles tried in the 1990s and Gov. Jeb Bush tried in the 2000s. But now the stars are aligning. The dam is showing its age, and public sentiment appears on the side of taking it down. The state can finally do the right thing.

The Ocklawaha River used to flow naturally to the St. Johns River, that is until the 1960s, when the Army Corps of Engineers dusted off a Depression-era design and started building the Cross-Florida Barge Canal. The idea was for ships to cut across the state between Yankeetown and Palatka and then up the St. Johns River to Jacksonville, instead of having to sail around Florida’s southern tip and through the Keys. The plan included damming the Ocklawaha. The list of red flags with this project were too numerous to list. The main ones: The price tag was enormous, and by the 1960s, the project wasn’t needed anymore. Oh, and the early plans required cutting into the aquifer, which could turn some of the state’s drinking water briney with seawater. In 1971, President Richard Nixon sensibly ended the folly to “prevent a past mistake from causing permanent damage” to the river. By then, the 7,200-foot long Rodman Dam was already built, flooding 9,000 acres of land and choking 20 freshwater springs.

Cross-Florida Barge Canal map
Cross-Florida Barge Canal map [ Army Corps of Engineers ]

Supporters of restoring the river’s flow have tried again and again to get the state to tear down or permanently breach the dam. They argue the dam promotes invasive species. Allowing the river to flow free, they say, would create better fishing and recreation opportunities, restore fish migration routes, provide more habitat for manatees, improve water quality, bring the springs back to life, and nourish the St. Johns River estuary. Chiles and Bush got on board, but even those two powerful governors couldn’t get past the vocal group of bass fishermen and other recreationists who defend the reservoir. The Rodman Dam was even renamed for Sen. George Kirkpatrick, who successfully thwarted moves to breach the dam. But the dam defenders’ winning streak is going to be tested again. And a recent survey gives supporters of removing the dam more ammunition.

Last year, the St. Johns River Water Management District performed a months-long survey that collected feedback from stakeholders on the dam and the reservoir. The state water district wanted to “help inform future key decisions regarding the best path forward.” More than 10,000 people responded. Released in November, the tally wasn’t even close. About 86 percent favored breaching the dam. Less than 6 percent wanted to keep the reservoir as is. Even the locals supported killing the dam, with more than three-quarters of respondents in Marion County and nearly 65 percent in Putnam County in favor. And last month, a new poll found that about 80 percent of likely Putnam and Marion county voters approved of restoring the river. The people have spoken. Florida’s leaders should listen.

Chronic growth of muck and floating weeds plague the Rodman Reservoir, as seen here at a boat ramp. Weeds have engulfed the ramp and dock.
Chronic growth of muck and floating weeds plague the Rodman Reservoir, as seen here at a boat ramp. Weeds have engulfed the ramp and dock. [ Orlando Sentinel ]

The dam is 54 years old. It needs upgrading. Bringing it up to accepted safety standards would cost a lot of money, though how much is up for debate. Water district Chair Douglas Burnett said at a meeting last year that upgrades could cost $8.5 million to $12 million. Florida TaxWatch released a report last month that estimated needed repairs at $4 million to $14 million, plus annual maintenance. The business-backed research organization’s analysis found that a partial restoration of the river — which includes breaching the dam — would add $9.1 million in annual economic benefits to the area. Breaching the dam would also boost tourism along the 74-mile river. The TaxWatch report favored restoring the Ocklawaha. “To do otherwise would be a dam shame,” it said. Yes, it would.

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Sunshine and vibrant waterways are Florida’s signature. They are what draw people to the state. Restoring the Ocklawaha River would strengthen that brand — and make Florida a better place. Tear down that dam.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.