Killing the Kirkpatrick Dam? The tale of Florida’s longest-running environmental wrangle

George Kirkpatrick Dam at Rodman Reservoir. Credit: Sandra Friend, USDA Forest Service.

This happened 20 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

I was on a boat, floating along a muddy shoreline. A handful of ibises, egrets and wood storks foraged near a stand of gaunt cypress trees growing along a slope. Each tree bore a dark band about three feet up from its roots. The dark mark showed how high the water usually stood.

Beyond them, in what was once a river channel,  I could see miles of stumps. They belonged to cypress trees that had not been cut but rather squashed by a monstrous tank-like machine built solely for this purpose and called a “Crusher-Crawler.”  Some of stumps were enormous.

This was a dried-out version of the 9,500-acre Rodman Reservoir – or as some fans of the reservoir insist on calling it these days, “Lake Ocklawaha.”

No matter what you call it, it remains the subject of Florida’s longest-running environmental wrangle. The fight’s been going on so long it’s become like the tangled lawsuit at the center of Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House – people have been born into the fight and died out.

To create the reservoir, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built what was originally known as the 7,200-foot-long Rodman Dam in 1968, halting the flow of the wild Ocklawaha River as part of the controversial Cross-Florida Barge Canal.

The canal was supposed to be a triumph of geometry over geography, giving ships a way to slice straight across Florida rather than go all the way around through the Keys. The fact that it would also cut into the Floridan Aquifer and make the state’s primary source of drinking water an undrinkable briny mess was just a bonus.

Activists, courts, a president and governors 

Fledgling Florida environmental groups, led by a scientist-turned-activist named Marjorie Harris Carr, won a court order to halt canal construction.

Richard Nixon. Credit: Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum

In 1971 then-President Richard Nixon killed it for good when he cut off federal funding. But the dam remained, inundating 9,000 acres of the Ocala National Forest, smothering 20 natural springs and blocking migrating manatees, striped bass and other marine life.

Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, vowed to tear down the dam. So did Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican. Neither succeeded.

Powerful North Florida legislators refused to approve money for dam removal because, they said, the stumps had turned the reservoir into a great fishing hole for largemouth bass.

(One of the Rodman’s defenders, Sen. George Kirkpatrick, was such a stalwart dam fan that it’s now named for him. Meanwhile, in an only-in-Florida irony, the route of the aborted canal is now a recreational trail named after Marjorie Harris Carr – and thus the Carr Greenway abuts the Kirkpatrick Dam.)

Every three or four years, the state drains the reservoir to rid it of aquatic weeds. During each drawdown – including 20 years ago when I saw it, and this spring when it happened again – people who hate the dam take reporters and photographers out to show off what the river would look like if it were returned to its untamed state.

Meanwhile fishing fans formed a group called Save Rodman Reservoir. Executive director Larry Harvey, a Putnam County commissioner, says they number about 450 people. Not all of them fish in “Lake Ocklawaha,” though. Harvey told me he does not, because his house is on three other lakes that also offer good bass fishing.

When I asked Harvey what would happen to the supply of bass if the dam were removed and the Ocklawaha became a free-flowing river, he said, “We don’t know what would happen.”

A dam-less future?

But he was skeptical about the dam-less future. Given all the development that has taken over the Florida landscape since the dam was built, he told me, “I don’t think we can go back to everything’s natural state.”

Another argument for keeping the dam, Harvey said, is that it holds back water that might someday be needed for regional drinking supplies. I asked him if anyone’s drinking out of it now and he said no. I asked if the springs that are currently inundated wouldn’t be a good source too. He said a reservoir is better.

Jim Gross, who now heads up the group that Carr founded, Florida Defenders of the Environment, contends the Save Rodman organization is just “a small group that holds the rest of the state hostage.”

By contrast, 35 organizations, some with thousands of members, have now banded together to form a Free the Ocklawaha coalition, he said. They contend emptying the reservoir would help with everything from manatee migration to keeping a rising sea level from turning the adjacent St. Johns River salty.

Gross and his allies are once again negotiating with state and federal officials about removing the dam, figuring out what steps to take and where the millions might come from. (They also have a federal lawsuit going, just in case.)

Bass fishing “isn’t nearly as good”

They have come close a few times in the past. In 2016, for instance, the head of the U.S. Forest Service said it was time to get all that water off federal forest land.

Meanwhile the St. Johns River Water Management District did a study that said any pollutants released from opening the reservoir would not cause irreparable damage downstream, as had been feared. But the November election that year meant someone different took over the Forest Service and the momentum for freeing the river faded, he said.

Kirkpatrick Dam Boat Ramp. Credit: USDA Forest Service.

Gross said the bass fishing in the Rodman Reservoir isn’t nearly as good as it used to be. A recent Bassmasters ranking of great bass fishing locations didn’t include Rodman in its top 25 with Lake Okeechobee and Lake Seminole.

It wound up in a “best of the rest” category, sort of an honorable mention. However, the state wildlife commission does credit the Rodman for being the No. 1 water body in the state for trophy catches.

When I talked to Harvey and to Gross this week, I told each of them that what’s going on with the Rodman reminded me of the Dead Lakes Dam on the Chipola River in the Panhandle. They both said they had never heard of it.

A sinkhole in the Chipola close to where it joins the Apalachicola River created the Dead Lakes, a 10-mile-long waterway near Wewahitchka. Cypress trees sank into the water-filled hole. Most of them died. The moss-draped stumps gave the lakes both their forbidding name and their eerie beauty.

After a three-year drought kept the Dead Lakes too low for fishing, the Legislature approved building a dam on the Chipola. Built in 1960, the 18-foot-tall dam was supposed to boost fishing by maintaining high water levels, rather than letting the lake fluctuate on its own.

When the Dead Lakes Dam was new, fish corralled in the reservoir were much easier to catch than the ones in the free-flowing river. Anglers crowded onto a bridge overlooking the dam to catch a cooler full of fish, and then another and another.

But over time the lake filled with silt and weeds. Acres of fish spawning beds disappeared. Soon the remaining bass, bream and shellcracker were so small they were hardly worth fishing for.

In favor of killing the Kirkpatrick Dam?

The solution: Tear down the dam. In 1987, the state hired a salvage contractor who cut slots in the dam and removed it a section at a time, allowing the impounded lake to draw down slowly. His bill: $32,000.

State fisheries biologists studied the Dead Lakes for several years after the dam was torn out. Without the dam, they found the lakes were healthier. There were more fish and bigger fish. And there were twice as many different kinds of fish as there used to be.

Of course, some people were unhappy about losing the dam. They tended to be the ones who’d had waterfront property while the river was dammed and lost easy water access when the dam was demolished.

If the Rodman is to be emptied out for good, the one person the anti-dam people need in their corner is Gov. Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis has a mixed reputation on environmental issues — steering millions to the Everglades, for instance, while also approving an expensive toll road that will pave over the heart of Florida panther habitat. Perhaps if he sides with the folks in favor of killing the Kirkpatrick Dam, they could find something else to name near the Marjorie Harris Carr Greenway.

How about the Ron DeSantis Ocklawaha River Landing and Manatee Observation Area?