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River restoration project risks snag in Legislature

The removal of the Ocklawaha River dam and Rodman Reservoir, a popular bass fishing site, is meeting resistance from key legislators.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 26, 2003


TALLAHASSEE -- As Florida tries to right past environmental wrongs by restoring the ditched Everglades and the straightened Kissimmee River, another restoration project has been stalled by politics for 32 years.

It is the restoration of the Ocklawaha River, a spring-fed waterway that floated steamboats full of tourists through Central Florida until the government built a giant dam across it in 1968.

The dam was part of a public works project called the Cross Florida Barge Canal, an ill-fated attempt to cut Florida in two to make shipping easier. President Nixon concluded that the canal project was a bad idea in 1971 and canceled it.

But the dam still remains, drowning 20 bubbling springs and 16 miles of river.

"This was the best scenic fishing river in Florida, and it can be again," said Joseph Siry of the Florida Defenders of the Environment, which is pushing for restoration.

Like his five predecessors, Gov. Jeb Bush wants to restore the Ocklawaha. Once again, a few North Florida legislators are trying to block the effort.

The Legislature has to provide money to tear down the dam, and it has continually refused to do so.

Why?

The dam creates the Rodman Reservoir, a popular bass fishing spot. When the government dammed the Ocklawaha, it sent in a giant machine called a crusher-crawler to mow down the riverside cypress forests. The cypress stumps, now underwater, are favored areas for bass.

Rodman supporters say tearing down the dam would destroy the reservoir and its abundant bass fishing. People spend $6-million to $7-million every year around the reservoir, they say.

Democratic Sen. Rod Smith of Gainesville and Republican Reps. Joe Pickens of Palatka and Dennis Baxley of Ocala are maneuvering to protect the dam. They are supported by Senate President Jim King of Jacksonville and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City.

Two bills that would block the Ocklawaha restoration are scheduled to be heard in the House today: one in the House Natural Resources committee and one in a subcommittee that deals with public lands and water issues.

Pickens and Smith are invoking the memory of George Kirkpatrick, a former state senator from Gainesville who died suddenly this year. Kirkpatrick fought for years against restoring the Ocklawaha. At his funeral, an aide put a "Save the Rodman" bumper sticker on Kirkpatrick's casket.

Pickens and Smith have filed bills (S1656/H1669) to create a Senate "memorial" to Kirkpatrick. It wouldn't be a physical memorial, but a legislative document describing the Legislature's intent to protect the Rodman Reservoir. Governors cannot veto legislative memorials.

The memorial would get around the latest problem for opponents of Ocklawaha restoration: the federal government.

The dam and some of the Rodman Reservoir sit on federal land that's part of the Ocala National Forest. The federal government wants to tear down the dam. Congress hasn't earmarked money to do it, and the federal government has just started reviewing the steps it would need to take to restore the river.

Pickens and Smith want the federal government out of the picture. Their legislative memorial asks Congress to give the federal land under the dam and Rodman Reservoir to Florida.

"I do not believe this ought to be decided by a federal agency," Smith said.

Another bill, filed by Smith and Baxley (S2042/H697), would turn the Rodman Reservoir into a state preserve -- another way to officially sanction the dam.

Supporters of restoring the Ocklawaha say people still could fish and kayak in a free-flowing river. They point out that it costs taxpayers $300,000 to $500,000 each year to maintain the dam, and it needs about $2.5-million in repairs.

Tearing down the dam and restoring the river would cost about $14-million over three years. After that, it would cost taxpayers nothing.

Over the years, Florida taxpayers have spent millions to study the issue, including a 20-volume study in 1993 that cost $900,000. Every study says Florida should take down the dam and let the Ocklawaha run free.

"Without this dam, we could have 20 springs flowing and people kayaking and fishing and boating on the river," said Siry of Florida Defenders of the Environment.

Scientists say that one of the springs, now flooded by the dam that bears Kirkpatrick's name, is as big as a football field with a flow of nearly 7-million gallons a day.

Bush concedes that the prospects for getting the Legislature to agree to restore the Ocklawaha this year are remote.

"We have a respectful disagreement," he said, "and that impasse may stand."

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