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House at odds with governor, U.S. over dam

The House wants Rodman Reservoir saved; Bush and federal officials want its dam torn down.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2001


The House wants Rodman Reservoir saved; Bush and federal officials want its dam torn down.

Despite opposition from Gov. Jeb Bush, federal officials and environmental groups, a second state House committee approved a bill Wednesday that could make the controversial Rodman Reservoir a permanent fixture.

"A treasure like the Rodman Reservoir has become is something worth preserving," said the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, who calls saving the dam "the right thing to do."

Pickens' bill is picking up momentum even as federal officials continue pushing the state to tear down the Central Florida dam, which partly occupies land belonging to the Ocala National Forest.

Just last week the U.S. Forest Service released a draft environmental impact statement that says the 7,200-foot-long dam is ruining water quality in the Ocklawaha River, reducing downstream productivity by fish and shellfish in both the Ocklawaha and the adjacent St. Johns River and spreading exotic and nuisance plants like hydrilla.

Tearing down the dam would solve those problems, as well as boost the number of species of fish available for anglers and allow bears, manatees and other animals to move freely along the restored river corridor, the study says.

Getting rid of the reservoir, which is a popular destination for bass fishermen, would cut the number of anglers now drawn to Putnam and Marion counties, the study says. But it contends that those anglers have so little impact on the area's economy that the loss will be negligible.

The study also notes that data from more than 100 reservoirs nationwide "show that sport fish harvest decreases as a reservoir ages," so that if Rodman remained, the fishing would decline anyway.

The Forest Service is taking comments on the document until June 29, and then will make a final determination. At this point the agency's preference is to tear down the dam and restore the river.

But what the landlord wants "doesn't seem to influence the Legislature," said Kristina Jackson of Florida Defenders of the Environment.

The dam and reservoir are remnants of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, which was supposed to let barges slice across the peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. To build it, the Army Corps of Engineers flattened thousands of trees along the pristine river. Completed in 1968, the dam backed the Ocklawaha up for 16 miles, drowning any trees still standing.

Although President Richard Nixon halted construction because of environmental concerns, the dam and reservoir remained. Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet voted unanimously to rip out the dam, but the Legislature repeatedly stymied the effort by cutting the project's funding.

The budget battle continues this year. In the House version of the budget is $800,000 that Bush requested to launch the first stage of river restoration. But in the Senate the money would go to setting up a new fish hatchery.

A 1995 report estimated that tearing down the dam could cost between $5-million and $23.4-million. If the Legislature decides to defy the federal government and try to keep the dam, it could cost a lot more, according to George Hemingway of the U.S. Forest Service.

Should the federal agency decide that the dam had to go, "then we have a right to go in and remove it . . . and the state would still be liable for that cost," he said.

Despite those concerns, the General Government Appropriations Committee passed the reservoir preservation bill by a vote of 9-3. It has one more committee stop before going to the full House.

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