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Bill may protect dam many want destroyed

A House committee has approved a bill that would protect the Rodman Reservoir, halting the dam's destruction.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001


Every time the Legislature convenes, there is a renewed battle over Rodman Reservoir. Even though Gov. Jeb Bush has joined the ranks of those who want to tear down the dam and free the Ocklawaha River, the fight goes on this year as well.

Over the objections of environmental groups, the House Natural Resources Committee approved a bill Monday to designate the Central Florida reservoir a state recreation area and preserve it.

"We got beat bad," said Eric Draper, conservation director of Audubon of Florida.

The bill would put the state at cross purposes with three federal agencies that want the dam destroyed, according to a letter federal officials sent the governor this year. The dam and reservoir partly occupy federal land that once was part of the Ocala National Forest.

"Accordingly, we have a deep concern over any legislation that would establish by law the continued existence of the Rodman Reservoir," regional directors for the U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Environmental Protection Agency wrote. Such legislation "would create a conflict between state law and the federal code of regulations."

Federal officials could not be reached for comment Monday on what they would do should the Legislature approve the bill sponsored by Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka. Pickens also could not be reached.

The Rodman battle extends to the state budget. Bush had sought $800,000 to start the restoration work this year, to prepare roads around the dam area and pump nutrient-rich sediments from behind the dam into an adjacent borrow pit.

The money the governor requested is in the House version of the budget, but not the Senate version. Instead, the Senate would spend $800,000 for a fish hatchery and $300,000 for the new park.

A legislative staff report estimates that the dam needs up to $2.5-million in repairs if it is to remain in place, and that operating it each year costs about $500,000. If the state were to keep the dam, it also would have to pay people whose land was flooded by it years ago. The estimated cost of those payments is at least $9.4-million.

A 1995 report on restoring the river estimated that tearing down the dam could cost between $5-million and $23.4-million.

The dam and reservoir are remnants of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, which was supposed to let barges slice straight across the peninsula from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The canal was halted by President Richard Nixon because of environmental concerns.

To build the reservoir, the Army Corps of Engineers flattened thousands of cypress trees along the 80-mile river. When the dam was completed in 1968 it backed the Ocklawaha up for 16 miles, flooding 9,000 acres.

The Legislature repeatedly blocked efforts by Bush's Democratic predecessor, Gov. Lawton Chiles, to come up with money to tear down the 7,200-foot dam. Lawmakers contended Rodman was too valuable as a popular bass-fishing lake.

For two years Bush refused to take a position on the dam, giving hope to its advocates that the Republican would take their side. But last July he announced that he, too, wants to tear it down.

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