What Lies Beneath

The ravaged former shores of the Ocklawaha River are on rare display right now, during the scheduled drawdown of the Rodman Reservoir. It’s a once every three-or-four-year glimpse of what was, and what remains, since the state dammed the river and flooded a 15-mile-long, 9,500-acre strand of forest to create the failed Cross Florida Barge Canal.

The canal, begun in 1964 and stopped by court order in 1971, aimed to literally cut the state in two, from Jacksonville to the Gulf of Mexico. Though never finished, the project was about a third completed, with the biggest single component being the construction of the reservoir and dam.

It remains one of the great environmental boondoggles in a state full of them (Disney World, DDT, the Everglades), having destroyed miles of idyllic waterways and acres of wildlife habitat. But as harsh an example as it is of environmental failure, it’s also a kind of trophy, proof that bad projects, even once underway, can be stopped.

Reversing the damage is another matter entirely. Although the Cross Florida Barge Canal was deauthorized in 1971 and officially cancelled 20 years after that, the pin-straight lines of the existing canal remain intact, along with the massive reservoir and dam. Named for the lawmaker who became its biggest champion, the Sen. George Kirkpatrick Dam today looms as large as the man it was named for, a Gainesville-based politician who used his power over appropriations to threaten and intimidate state agencies into keeping the dam in place. Environmental scientists have for years sought to dismantle the dam and restore the natural flow to the Ocklawaha River, and for a time, it seemed likely that would happen. But the effort was derailed by Kirkpatrick and a coalition of recreational fishermen, tourist interests and Putman County politicians. “It’s a major economic benefit to Putnam County,” said Putnam County Administrator Gary Adams in 1996. “If we lose that, we lose a tremendous asset.”

As it happens, Putnam County is home to another river-despoiling special interest — the Georgia-Pacific Paper Mill — which claims economic justification for its abuse of the St. Johns River ecosystem. Indeed, the flow of money in Florida — whether via industry or development — is the biggest threat to any of its rivers. But where the state once provided some degree of regulatory safeguard, that cushion is gone. Between cuts by the legislature and “reorganizations” by the governor, Florida’s wild places are more exposed than ever.

If any proof were needed, the St. Johns River Water Management District last week released a much-anticipated report on the impact of water withdrawals in the southern part of the St. Johns on the river’s ecosystem. The conclusion? Whatever water is removed by Orlando-area utilities will be more than made up for by rising sea levels and the increase in stormwater runoff as new development paves over the state.

The idea that the agency whose mission it is to preserve Florida’s water resources is treating stormwater runoff and the effects of climate change as substitutes for natural river flow would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. The Water Management District, never perfect, is now a shell of itself. Its budget was slashed by Gov. Scott this year by a third (a move that saved the average homeowner about 10 bucks a year) and the resulting layoffs claimed 130 jobs.

The governor also appointed the district’s new board chair, Lad Daniels, whose former job was head of the polluting industry lobbyist group, the First Coast Manufacturers Association. To say the district is cowed, toothless and broke is an understatement.

It’s not that nobody saw this coming (http://bit.ly/rmYpGs). But the reality is as sobering as the sight of the drowned forests of the Ocklawaha. Perhaps it is not too late to stop the ruination of the state’s rivers. But reversing the damage will be another matter entirely.

Anne Schind

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