Damn the Dam – Joseph Guiffre

For those of you not closely following news related to our beloved Florida waterways and natural habitats, you may have missed a momentous event last month. The St. Johns River Water Management District published the results of a public comment survey on a little-known outdated dam just south of Palatka. The survey showed overwhelming support for demolishing it. So, what’s the deal with this damn dam?

For 50 years a fight has been brewing down there; no, it isn’t over whether possums or raccoons make better pets. It has been over the Rodman Dam. The dam restricts the flow of the Ocklawaha River, a 74-mile-long ribbon of blackwater streaming through the heart of Florida. For the last half century people have been fighting for the river’s freedom and if the dam should be destroyed or not.

The Rodman Dam was built in 1968 to create a large lake to aid in boat navigation as part of a project called the Cross Florida Barge Canal. The idea of cutting Florida in half is nothing new with the oldest plans dating back to the 1500s. None succeeded but the Cross Florida Barge Canal got as far as any. The remnants can be seen to this day on a drive down State Road 19 as an incredibly straight line of water and a high bridge crossing over it. The fervent environmental movement of the 1970s quickly caught on putting their best long-haired heads on the problem and bellbottomed feet on the streets to cease the project. They won a victory with the help of presidential order and stopped the bulldozers in their tracks. Yet, after all this time, the dam has remained.

In the ensuing years the lake behind the Rodman Dam has become a premier bass fishing spot. The argument to keep the dam in place essentially centers around the popularity of the lake for fishermen. The tackle and bait shops, hotels and bars visited by anglers bring in millions of dollars to the surrounding counties, which are among the poorest in Florida. The costs related to upgrading the dam to prevent the risk of the dam failing and flooding property along the St. Johns River is upwards of $10 million. The studies by the state, though, have shown a surprising trend; fishing-related visits to the lake have dropped and people seeking the Ocklawaha for ecological tourism has gone up. It would appear the fishing isn’t a shiny enough lure for people but all the gleaming green of natural Florida is.

The list of benefits from removing the Rodman Dam are longer than any largemouth bass, the most the most pressing of which is to create a free-range habitat for the Florida Manatee. Our favorite floating cow friends are in trouble with more manatees dying in the past year than any year on record. A free-flowing Ocklawaha River would provide manatees a safe route to Silver Springs where they hang out in the water to keep warm in the winter—before us Floridians migrate to the same waters to keep our bodies and beers cool in summer. 

Draining the lake held in by the dam would uncover more than 20 natural springs that have been flooded for decades. Think of the photo opportunities alone with all those new springs less than an hour from Jacksonville. The St. Johns River would also receive over 100 million gallons a day of freshwater that would otherwise be locked in the reservoir. The Rodman Dam interrupts a direct connection of Silver Springs and the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Johns River, allowing the ecosystem in the Ocklawaha to blossom with species of fish not seen there for a very long time. 

Beyond these benefits, the biggest win would be the restoration of a slice of natural Florida at a time when thousands of acres are being turned into cookie cutter developments. The reservoir created by the dam submerged one of the largest cypress forests this side of the Everglades. The thousands of skeleton trees are a popular attraction during the temporary, occasional opening of the dam when the water levels drop, which is cool, in a you know, dystopian kind of way. Getting rid of the dam and the reservoir would resurrect the forest.

It may sound boring and bureaucratic, but the SJRWMD survey is an exciting opportunity for the public to make their voices heard and create change that will affect hundreds of miles of waterways, thousands of acres of forest and the ecology in our state. The agency rarely asks for input on decisions of this magnitude, but the people spoke clearly in support of nature. Citizens can also contact their representatives and use this survey as motivation to remove the Rodman Dam, a chance to reach out and finish the work started back in the 70’s.

May this be a bit of good news on your outlook on the state of our environment. The bad news is men of North Florida will have to work a little harder to find fish to hold up in their Tinder profiles.