Tearing down the Rodman Reservoir is at the center of the river water removal debate

EUREKA – Here, deep in the heart of Florida and miles away from anything, the Ocklawaha River meets an abandoned dam.

There’s a history lesson, but the history is ebbing from memory. And the lesson couldn’t be more relevant.

The Ocklawaha used to be one of Florida’s biggest tourist attractions, and then one of its most ambitious economic projects, and then, some say, one of its most disgraceful environmental tragedies.

Now, this tributary of the St. Johns River has become a flash point in the debate over Central Florida’s plans to withdraw river water to accommodate population growth.

You may have never seen the Ocklawaha River, or pronounced its name, or even heard of it.

But if you’re concerned about the St. Johns River, you can’t look away. The Ocklawaha (pronounced OCK-la-WA-ha) makes up a major portion of the St. Johns’ flow – as much as a third, some say.

Water managers have identified both rivers as potential sources of drinking water for Central Florida, where development is outstripping the supply of water from underground aquifers. Upstream counties could siphon as much as 107 million gallons per day from the Ocklawaha and 155 million gallons per day from the St. Johns.

As the plans have taken shape, the St. Johns River Water Management District has taken heavy criticism from environmentalists who say the withdrawals could seriously harm the St. Johns, especially downstream in Northeast Florida. With the Ocklawaha flowing through a less populated area, it has almost seemed like an afterthought.

But Robin Lewis, a wetlands scientist and one of the directors of the Putnam County Environmental Council, said you can’t talk about the issue without looking at the St. Johns River ecosystem as a whole.

“They’re trying to pretend like the Ocklawaha isn’t part of the St. Johns,” he said of the district, which oversees water use in north and central Florida.

Officials responded to the concern that erupted in Northeast Florida with a new impact study to research further the effects, this time factoring in potential withdrawals in the Ocklawaha, among other issues.

“We might determine that … there is not one iota of water to take,” the district’s Hal Wilkening said. But “if you ask us what our gut feeling is, we think there’s some water that is available.”

The most recent district studies – from the 1990s – say the Ocklawaha south of the Rodman Reservoir could yield as much as 100 million gallons per day of drinking water, which some utilities have proposed piping over 100 miles away to Central Florida. The district says that number will likely change after a minimum flows and levels study is complete in 2009.

The idea that the Ocklawaha has any water to spare is absurd, say advocates with the Putnam County Environmental Council, the group leading the fight to tear down the Kirkpatrick Dam, drain the Rodman and restore the river to its natural state.

They point to drying wetlands that surround the river, and degradation of the lands around the river caused by the dam.

“We ought to be in recovery mode for the Ocklawaha,” Lewis said.

A split in time

Few people live on the middle Ocklawaha, because the government owns much of the land around it.

To the south, development and muck farms along the chain of lakes that make up its headwaters have kept water from the river and dumped pollutants into it and the Silver River, which contributes much of the Ocklawaha’s flow.

To the north, for a 16-mile stretch from Eureka to Palatka, the Ocklawaha is dammed for a failed federal project that became the rallying cry for a national environmental movement and poster child for critics of government waste.

The Rodman and the dam were part of the final incarnation of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal, conceived as a way to link Jacksonville to the Gulf of Mexico and ports in the Midwest by cutting a path through the state. Plans for the “Ditch of Dreams,” as University of Florida history professor Steven Noll describes it in an upcoming book, began as early as the 1800s.

Just three years after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flooded the Rodman for the first time, work on the canal ground to a halt in 1971.

The Rodman, with its shallow waters and otherworldly clusters of tree stumps, has become exceedingly popular with bass fishermen. Recreation and the area’s economy became its champion, so a handful of powerful state lawmakers from Ocala to Jacksonville have blocked efforts to tear down the dam.

The parallels – scientific, political, economic – to today’s fight over the dam and the rivers are inevitable, Noll said.

And as in the past, he said, both sides use science to their advantage.

Both the Ocklawaha and the St. Johns flow through small but politically influential Putnam County, which is itself in the delicate position of seeking to drink out of the Ocklawaha but fighting to protect the St. Johns, which is seen as the key to the economic revival of Palatka.

Perhaps that’s why the county is so divided over the Rodman. Some see the Rodman as an accidental but valuable asset; for others, it’s a lingering affront to a unique and important ecosystem.

Ed Taylor, president of Save Rodman Reservoir and a Putnam County commissioner, is among the former. “What they done was wrong, but it’s turned into a good system for the citizens, [so] leave it alone.”

Karen Ahlers, president of the Putnam Environmental Council, said that’s a fallacy. “Every environmental study that’s been done has recommended removal of Rodman dam.”

There are some benefits to the pool, supporters say. The largemouth bass fishing is second to none, Taylor said.

But migratory fish species – such as mullet and catfish – have all but disappeared from the river, despite its booming bass population, Ahlers said. Biologists with the U.S. Forest Service believe the fishing there will decline over the years.

Supporters point to the question of how much Rodman filters pollution that would otherwise contaminate the St. Johns River. If you ask state officials, it’s the chief issue keeping the Rodman intact. Scientists with the St. Johns River Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are worried that tearing down the dam would permanently send more damaging nutrients into the St. Johns River, which has restrictions on such toxins.

But no one is sure of the precise impact. And the DEP may be forced to figure that out, because lawsuits are forcing it to pursue a long-dormant permit to remove the dam.

One of the lawsuits deals with manatees, one of many species that suffered because of the Rodman dam. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supports removing the dam, said Dave Hankla, field supervisor in the Jacksonville office, because that would reopen wintering sites, such as Silver Springs, to manatees.

But the most incendiary debate is over the dam’s impact on the availability of water to take from the river.

How much water is there?

Taylor claims that keeping the pool could provide drinking water to Putnam without adverse effects – he said district staff told him up to 150 million gallons per day. A district spokeswoman denies that and says the figure is scientifically unsupportable.

Ahlers compared the Rodman to a backyard birdbath – as the shallow water heats up, it evaporates – and said her group’s science committee has estimated the pool could lose 30 million gallons per day, more than what would be lost when water evaporates through river-side wetlands.

Mark Brown, director of the Wetlands Center at the University of Florida, said it’s likely that some amount of water is lost in the Rodman vs. a restored river.

The question is how much, Brown said.

No one’s sure, because the water management district hasn’t studied that issue.

Wilkening, of the water management district, said he believes that removing the dam and restoring the river wouldn’t affect how much water is available from the Ocklawaha. If it was pumped, it would happen south, or upstream, of the reservoir.

What isn’t in dispute is that the Ocklawaha’s flow into the St. Johns has already faltered. The amount of fresh water it puts into the slightly salty St. Johns has declined by more than 40 percent over the past six decades.

Again, no one agrees on why. A district analysis of the loss conducted in March says two-thirds of the loss can be explained by drought.

Lewis said even if that figure is correct, it still leaves a third unexplained. He pointed to another of the district’s studies, completed in 2004, that attributed a reduced flow to declining groundwater levels caused by development, and flood control structures in Central Florida that kept lakes artificially high to the detriment of the river.

A fight to the end

Both sides have pledged to fight – or fight for – the dam and the water withdrawals until the end of the road.

What’s yet to be determined is whether the recent skirmishes over the health of the St. Johns and Ocklawaha are unfolding as final chapters or merely cycles in the centuries-long sweep of the Ocklawaha’s history.

Noll pointed out that the canal was halted twice – in the 1930s and the 1960s – at the precipice of environmental catastrophe. Had it not been, a vast swath of Florida could have been a wasteland.

“In the ’30s, what stops the ship canal is South and Central Florida citrus growers, who assume it’s going to cut into the aquifer [and contaminate it with salt water]. Scientists from the corps and the state geological survey say no, but they’ve got a vested interest,” Noll said.

“Now, they say taking water from the river won’t hurt it. I think there are definitely lessons from history.”

deirdre.conner@jacksonville.com (904) 359-4504