Has One Florida Dam's Day Finally Come?
Conservationists have waged a 41-year battle to free "the sweetest water-lane in the world" by tearing down an unnecessary dam. Their efforts have seemed hopeless--until now.
Last April I journeyed to Florida to inspect America's most unique dam and its influence on one of America's most unique waterways. Rodman Dam on the Ocklawaha River is the only dam in the nation without even an alleged purpose. It is a 44-year-old vestigial appendage of what, in the words of Carl Buchheister, Audubon's president from 1959 to 1967, would have been "one of the greatest boondoggles ever perpetrated."
Rodman was the only one of three planned dams that was completed and closed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of a canal to bisect Florida. The canal was designed for ships when work got under way in 1935, but funding quickly ran out. By the time work started again in 1964, the project had been scaled down to accommodate only barges. There would be vast impoundments connected by excavated channels and accessed by five locks.
The 182-mile Cross-Florida Barge Canal would have run from Jacksonville south and upstream on the St. Johns River (to be dredged), overland to the Ocklawaha (to be dredged and impounded) to a point near Silver Springs (thus destroying most of the Silver River), then overland again to the Withlacoochee River (to be channelized, dredged, and impounded) and on to Yankeetown and the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1971, with the project almost a third complete, President Nixon killed it, rendering the Cross-Florida Barge Canal the biggest unfinished public works project in history. So today Rodman Dam just sits there, ruining terrestrial and aquatic habitat and blocking fish and wildlife movement.
But never have prospects for restoring the Ocklawaha and its floodplain been brighter. America is easing away from the notion that dams are sacred monuments to be preserved in perpetuity. In the past decade they have been coming down all across the nation--Elwha and Glines Canyon dams in Washington; Birch Run and West Leechburg dams in Pennsylvania; Marmot, Condit, and Savage Rapids dams in Oregon; Sturgeon River Dam in Michigan; and LaSalle Dam in New York, to mention just a few.
And now, in response to a 60-day notice of intent to sue filed by Florida Defenders of the Environment (FDE) and the Florida Wildlife Federation in February, the U.S. Forest Service--custodian of land, water, fish, and wildlife compromised by the dam--has agreed to reassess damage to endangered species. Removing or breaching the dam is the only way to fix that damage. Pending Forest Service action, the suit is on hold.
America doesn't have another river quite like the Ocklawaha. Rising from swamps and lakes in north-central Florida, it winds north along the western edge of the Ocala National Forest, then veers east at Orange Springs, where it's collected by the St. Johns River. Fed by clear springs gushing from a water-rich feature called the Floridan Aquifer, it is semitropical, canopied, ancient. And unlike most other Florida rivers, almost all of them its junior, its course was set by a fault line raised by primordial earthquakes. It drains 2,800 square miles, much of it sanctuary for unique plants and animals, including the Florida scrub jay, that survived on this high ground when the rest of the peninsula was under the sea.
Eighteenth-century naturalist William Bartram's description of the Ocklawaha was the inspiration for "Alph, the sacred river" in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan." And a decade after the Civil War, poet Sidney Lanier, who explored the Ocklawaha by steamboat, described it as "the sweetest water-lane in the world, a lane which runs for more than a hundred and fifty miles of pure delight betwixt hedgerows of oaks and cypresses and palms and bays and magnolias and mosses and manifold vine-growths."
It remains basically unchanged on April 9, 2012, at least where our party meets it on this windless morning fragrant with forest-fire smoke. We access it from the Silver River, a third of the way down the Ocklawaha's northern course. In my canoe is FDE director Erin Condon. In two other canoes are FDE board president Steve Robitaille--an English professor and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker preparing a documentary on the watershed and its history; longtime Ocklawaha advocate and former Putnam County Environmental Council president Karen Ahlers; Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida; and our professional guide, Lars Andersen, an accomplished birder, local historian, and author.
Sunlight, muted by the smoke, filters through overhead branches festooned with Spanish moss. Some of the more dominant trees in this rich, diverse bottomland forest are bald cypress, tupelo, sweet gum, red maple, swamp bay, cabbage palm, river elm, water hickory, green ash, and pumpkin ash.
After a decade of drought almost all the flow comes from the Silver River, fed by the clear water of Silver Springs. So natural tannin is even more suppressed than usual. I can count the dorsal spines on largemouth bass 10 feet down. Clouds of juvenile and adult sunfish, mostly bluegills and redbreasts, hang and turn in the gentle current as if from a mobile. Florida gar, bowfins, catfish, and golden shiners ghost through and over waving eelgrass and carpets of coontail. Atlantic needlefish, iridescent green and silver, shoot across the surface. In still backwaters chain pickerel lie in ambush.
The quantity of coontail bothers Lee, who has loved and defended the river for four decades. "Only 15 years ago you could see big patches of sand," he says. "All the lawns and septic tanks around the City of Ocala send nutrients into the groundwater that feeds Silver Springs."