River be dammed

Florida's forgotten river.


by Matt Keene

Snaking its way through peninsular Florida's central highlands, the Ocklawaha River mirrors the crooked complexities of its long involvement with humankind.

The river has attracted the attention of past presidents Ulysses S. Grant, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush, and yet it is a river that even many Floridians have trouble identifying.

For thousands of years, aboriginals fished and hunted along the Ocklawaha's wooded shoreline. In the late 19th century, the river bewitched northern tourists on steamboats advancing along its serpentine length with the primal sights of brooding alligators and dense, dark, forested floodplains.

Throughout most of its history, the river's winding route guided its use. In the late 1960s, however, while men on Florida's East Coast were being launched into space, the Ocklawaha River became the target of a massive engineering project called the Cross Florida Barge Canal. More than twice the length of the famed Panama Canal, the Barge Canal promised maritime protection and economic security in a period of growing concern over national defense and smug competence in the engineering capabilities of the United States.

Environmental activists, led by environmentalist Marjorie Harris Carr, surged in their opposition to the Barge Canal's construction, drawing national attention to the potential harm the Barge Canal would cause to the river. Publications ranging from The New York Times to Reader's Digest amplified the issue. Years of coalition building led to the formation of Florida Defenders of the Environment in July of 1969. FDE galvanized the fight, making public an Environmental Impact Statement less than one year later that was authored by 26 noted scientists. The study disputed claims made by the Army Corps of Engineers and accurately foresaw the environmental problems that would result from construction of the Barge Canal. Spurred by the mounting environmental outcry, President Nixon, in January of 1971, halted the project, stating that the Ocklawaha River was a “natural treasure” and a “uniquely beautiful, semi-tropical stream, one of a very few of its kind in the United States.”

The project's termination, however, did not come before the nearly 7,000-foot-long Rodman (now Kirkpatrick) Dam was built across the Ocklawaha River, flooding 9,000 acres and 16 miles of wetland forest and creating the Rodman Pool.

More than forty years after construction was stopped, the dam still remains--without a clear or defined purpose. The dam's presence bars upstream access to *striped bass and other notable migratory marine species such as the endangered manatee and piles nutrients and invasive aquatics behind its earthen berm, choking native habitat and disrupting the natural dispersement of nutrients to downstream floodplains.

Most alarmingly, the state of Florida has not renewed a federally-required special use permit to occupy the public, national forest lands on which part of the Kirkpatrick Dam is built, meaning that, for more than 10 years, the state has illegally occupied and inundated thousands of acres of federal land at a cost to taxpayers of as much as $1 million per year.

River be dammed is an exploration into the impact the Kirkpatrick Dam has on the Ocklawaha River and its surrounding lands. Over the next several weeks, individual chapters will be released, each taking an in-depth look at how this impaired system functions and how Florida continues to interact with and shape the river's future.

Correction (6/18/2014): The introduction originally listed striped bass alongside manatee as an endangered or threatened species. While the dam prevents striped bass from spawning along the Ocklawaha River (see Chapter 3), they are not endangered. This has been corrected.

The Kirkpatrick Dam & Rodman Pool


The Ocklawaha River, 1823

River be dammed: Florida's forgotten river.
A mini-documentary on the Kirkpatrick Dam, Cross Florida Barge Canal and Ocklawaha River.