Ocklawaha River: Weed-Choked Reservoir Blocks Free Flow From Silver Springs To St. Johns River
A legacy of the hasty construction of the dam and reservoir in the 1960s is that it left many trees in the reservoir's boundary.
Part 3 of Special Series
Cannon Springs has spent a half-century entombed by a government blunder of a dam and reservoir on the Ocklawaha River. Every several years, authorities must dump the artificial lake to flush out a nonstop growth of muck and weeds.
Only then is Cannon Springs liberated, as are 19 other nearby springs, and only for a few weeks. That’s why it felt like a statement when a small group of environmentalists arrived by boat to take a dip.
Submerging into Cannon’s chilly spring water with hoots and groans was an act of protest against an environmental crime committed by the federal government and abetted still today by state authorities.
Removing the dam to permanently uncover the lost springs and 7,500 acres of forested wetlands is one of Florida’s earliest, formally dedicated environmental quests that has a battle cry: “Free the Ocklawaha.”
“It’s shorthand for allowing the Ocklawaha to function as a natural river,” said Richard Hamann, a longtime advocate for the river’s restoration and a former director and professor at the Center for Governmental Responsibility at the University of Florida College of Law. “A lot of people have spent so much time, energy and money trying to correct this error that was made in the 1960s.”
For a time, it appeared the movement would prevail. In the mid-1990s, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles was authorizing steps for river restoration. But counter-protests from bass fisherman gained traction.
The ongoing, ecological price of not removing the dam has been high, said Lisa Rinaman, leader of the St. Johns Riverkeeper group. She contends that restoring the Ocklawaha’s free flow is the most important step available for shoring up the distressed health of the lower and estuary portion of the St. Johns River, including through Jacksonville.
A free-flowing Ocklawaha with its resurrected wetlands would result in more, cooler and cleaner water reaching the St. Johns River and blunting the harm of rising temperatures and levels of seawater, she said.
“Every day that dam is in place it is damaging the St. Johns River,” Rinaman said. “There isn’t a question about the science behind restoring the Ocklawaha. It’s a political issue.”
The 74-mile river begins west of Orlando, extends north, takes in the powerful current of Silver Springs, then turns east to join the St. Johns River.
It’s that final, 20-mile bend to the east where the Ocklawaha met with disaster.
A dam was built there to be part of a 110-mile shortcut for coal barges across the state’s peninsula, connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
With work starting in the 1960s, the Cross Florida Barge Canal route would link a series of rivers and lakes, including the Ocklawaha, which was not large enough to carry barges. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would fix that by turning the slender river into a wide reservoir.
It was a hasty, brutal job, done with a “crawler-crusher” resembling a battle tank as big as a five-story building.
Rather than clearing away forest for the reservoir, the crawler flattened but also left millions of standing trees.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon halted the canal as needless for shipping and ruinous for Florida’s environment. The job wasn’t yet half done. But the Rodman Dam and Reservoir had obliterated 16 miles of magnificence.
Fed by springs, the Ocklawaha’s current was invisible. Fish, manatees and turtles appeared to hover in the air. The river bottom was white sand or a maze of dark trunks of trees that had tipped over. The ceiling was a darkening canopy of cypress, maples, sweetgums and cabbage palms.
The carnage inspired the “Micanopy housewife,” environmental scientist Marjorie Harris Carr, to found the Florida Defenders of the Environment group. She and her husband, Archie, of Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, would be acclaimed their conservation work.
“Marjorie Carr’s opposition to it was utterly fantastic,” wrote Nathaniel Reed, one of Florida’s most lauded conservation leaders, in his book of essays, “Travels on the Green Highway.” “She really believed. A lot of people began to really believe.”
The Ocklawaha dam has no intended purpose – including for flood control, navigation, power generation or water supply – though by default it supports a relatively small fishing economy for the struggling Putnam County.
But anglers’ opposition to dam removal has been potent. Their Save Rodman Reservoir group was formed in 1996 “dedicated to preventing the destruction of Rodman Reservoir.”
The group’s president last year, Putnam County Commissioner Larry Harvey, urged members to resist “allowing people who call themselves environmentalists who live in concrete-gated subdivisions … to determine the fate of our precious lake.”
The current president, Steve Miller, a construction company project manager, grew up near the reservoir. His devotion to it was unmistakable during a boating tour this summer.
“We may bump a stump or two,” Miller said. Dyed by vegetation, the lake is the color of coffee. With a slight chop on the lake’s surface, it was sometimes difficult to spot stumps and floating limbs.
“You can’t put a boat in and go wide open,” Miller said, starting out cautiously in his metal craft, which lurched and clanged into stumps occasionally. Parts of the lake were blanketed with floating weeds that he had to plow through.
With its black water and bristle of tree skeletons, the lake is isolated, treacherous and not a place for casual boaters. To Miller, it’s nature’s playground paradise.
“I camp out there, go fishing, take the kids out there and stay out all night with guys on airboats, getting alligators and frogs and all kinds of good stuff,” Miller said.
He enthusiastically disagrees with dam opponents. Removing the dam won’t bring more fish, manatees or ecotourists, and the reservoir is ideal for storing and cleansing water, he said. He accuses opponents of grudges.
“The people who want this place gone complain about everything,” Miller said. “There’s some selfishness going on in my opinion.”
The dam controversy is local, intimate and infused with class struggle: urban vs. rural, hunting vs. bird-watching, and Trump vs. Biden. Florida leaders have allowed it to fester.
Abutting most of the dam and reservoir is Putnam County, which has a declining population of about 75,000 and some of the worst poverty levels in the state. A key employer is a pulp and paper mill.
Neighboring Alachua County is where Majorie Carr lived and is home to most Florida Defenders of the Environment leaders and members. The county has a strong economic base with the University of Florida in Gainesville.
In the 2010 governor’s race, Putnam voters strongly supported the Republican winner, Rick Scott, while Alachua favored the Democrat, Alex Sink. In the 2018 election, Putnam backed the Republican winner, Ron DeSantis, while 63 percent of Alachua votes were for Democrat Andrew Gillum.
Florida Defenders of the Environment dismissed Scott as one of the state’s worst governors on environmental issues. The group had hoped for but has gotten little engagement, other than a few talks, with DeSantis’ administration.
“We will, of course, continue to work closely with interested stakeholders to ensure that all perspectives are considered,” said DeSantis’ science officer, Thomas Frazier.
To the group of swimmers at Cannon Springs, state leaders have all but ignored the science of restoring the Ocklawaha. The swimmers returned to their boat and motored upriver away from the reservoir, passing an unusual spring at the river’s edge. It was flowing from a small, eroded tree stump.
Kingfishers whizzed by and wood storks stalked the river’s shallows.
“They treat it as their own fishbowl,” said Jennifer Carr, 33, of the dam’s supporters. She had remained the longest in Cannon Springs, taking underwater photos despite the chill.
Carr, director of an entomology lab at the University of Florida, is the granddaughter of Marjorie Carr. She became the group’s president this year.
“They treat it as if there is no connection to Silver Springs or to the St. Johns River,” Carr said.
Her group contends that restoring the Ocklawaha River would cost almost nothing – compared with other restoration projects and compared to the ongoing cost of maintaining the dam and reservoir.
State maintenance of the dam and reservoir may subsidize Putnam County’s economy but not without damaging the economies and environments of Marion and Duval counties, the group members say.
Seated in the boat, Robert Knight, director of the Florida Springs Institute in Alachua County, said the Ocklawaha River is a spring run because it flows predominantly with the massive discharge of Silver Springs, one of Florida’s earliest tourism attractions in Marion County.
The dam blocks nearly all of the historic migrations of eels, rays, American shad, striped bass and channel catfish, species that are instrumental in a healthy ecology of Silver Springs, Knight said. It also prevents a winter migration of manatees to Silver Springs, which would be an enormous tourism draw for Marion County, he said.
“Silver is dying,” Knight said. “For Silver Springs to be restored, the Ocklawaha needs to be restored.”
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.