Once upon a time: Free the Ocklawaha

by Jim Gross

Once upon a time in the United States of America we built dams all across our land. We built them because it was the 20th century and because we had become the greatest power on Earth. We built them for power generation, water supply, and flood control. We even built some for commercial navigation. It was an age of innocence. We built dams to a large extent because we could, with little if any consideration of whether we should.

The golden age of dam building in the U.S. did not make it to the end of the 20th century. The heyday of dam building came to a halt by the mid 1970s, shortly after the first Earth Day in 1970. By then we had begun to realize that the costs of our dams exceeded the dollars needed to build and operate them. Our dams had devastated aquatic ecosystems from mountains to sea. Entire species of fish disappeared from our rivers, particularly migratory species that moved back and forth from river to ocean as part of their natural reproductive cycles.

Florida was not left unscathed by the dam building era. The dream of building a canal across Florida had simmered in the imaginations of generations, all the way back to the Spanish colonial era. This dream awakened in the early 1960s when the U.S. Congress authorized construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal. By 1968, the Rodman Dam on the Ocklawaha River was built.

Not everyone in Florida supported the Canal project. An emerging environmental movement recognized that the project was a boondoggle. These early environmentalists knew that the overall costs far outweighed the benefits. They organized themselves to oppose the project and founded Florida Defenders of the Environment (FDE) to stop it. 

FDE sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1969. Two years later a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled in favor of FDE and ordered the Corp of Engineers to stop construction of the project. The Canal project was never completed, but its remnants still sit astride the landscape as a reminder of the boondoggle.

Decades have passed with the Rodman Dam still in place. Environmental degradation has continued, adversely impacting not just the Ocklawaha River, but also the Silver and St. Johns rivers. But the good news is that restoration is still feasible. 

The original planning work was completed by the 1990s. Restoration work was temporarily halted in 1999. However, the St. Johns River Water Management District launched a series of studies to assess the feasibility of removing the dam. These studies were completed by 2016.

Florida is now poised to move forward with restoration. At this very moment, citizens have been invited to provide input on restoring the Ocklawaha River. 

The St. Johns River Water Management District has provided the general public the chance to express its views on river restoration via an online website (https://floridaswater.formstack.com/forms/rodman). You have the opportunity to join FDE and its many partners who together have formed a Coalition to restore the “Great Florida Riverway.” 

There is a wealth of information on the Coalition website to help you understand the issues (https://www.freetheocklawaha.com). The information illustrates that the benefits from restoration are not just ecological. There will also be significant economic benefits to Florida as a whole and especially to the communities along the riverway.

The survey is only open until Oct. 22. Please take this opportunity to voice your support for restoring a free-flowing river. There may not be a better time to do so.

Jim Gross is the Executive Director of Florida Defenders of the Environment and teaches Earth Science at Santa Fe College.

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