Environmentalists renew push to tear down dam

Rodman Dam built in 1968


PALATKA, Fla. – Reviving a decades-old fight, environmentalists have begun a legal push to remove the Rodman dam in North Florida and restore the Ocklawaha River.

In an administrative challenge filed Monday with the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, members of the Florida Defenders of the Environment asked the federal government to enforce the terms of an agreement that came after Congress deauthorized the Cross Florida Barge Canal in 1990.

The dam, built in 1968 near Palatka and formally known as the George Kirkpatrick Dam, remained in place on federal land in the Ocala National Forest under a series of permits that have long since expired, said Jane West, a St. Augustine lawyer who filed the litigation. She said the last action came in 2010 when the U.S. Forest Service directed the state Department of Environmental Protection to seek to renew the dam permit, which never happened.

"Years later, the agencies have been muddling along with no clarity, no delineation of responsibilities, and quite frankly an outright unauthorized trespass of publicly owned land," West said.

Former Gov. Buddy MacKay, who wrote the legislation that killed the canal project while he was a member of Congress in 1990, said he supports the removal of the dam.

"It's an absolute outrage that everything that has been done and we still have this dam," MacKay said. "There's no reason whatsoever to do this. In fact it's a bizarre situation."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Bruce Kaster, a Florida Defenders of the Environment member and former officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Joseph Little, another member of the environmental group and law professor emeritus at the University of Florida.

Kaster, who is an Ocala lawyer, said the proponents of restoring the Ocklawaha River and removing the dam have been too "conciliatory" in their approach and are now taking a more aggressive legal stance.

"This is just one prong. We're going full tilt right now," said Kaster, explaining other federal lawsuits may be filed.

Most of the debate over the removal of the Rodman Dam has taken place in the political arena, where North Florida lawmakers, including Kirkpatrick, a longtime senator, and former state Senate President Jim King, over the years successfully blocked efforts to remove the dam and related structures.

Newly elected lawmakers, including Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, and Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, support keeping the dam and the related 9,200-acre Rodman Reservoir, which is a major bass-fishing attraction.

The last significant debate over the dam came in 2015, when Jacksonville officials advanced a plan linking dredging of the St. Johns River for a port expansion with the removal of the Rodman dam. The effort died in the 2015 Legislature.

The repeated failure to resolve the issue in the Legislature or administratively has led to the lawsuit, West said.

"My clients and the environmental community have had enough," West said. "Those consensus-building and political avenues have failed, obviously, because the dam is still there."

Environmental groups have long called for the removal of the dam and the restoration of the Ocklawaha, which is a major tributary to the St. Johns River.

West said the state would save more than a $1 million a year that it now uses to maintain the dam.

She also said the dam removal would add to the water flow of the St. Johns and revive more than 20 natural springs in the area, where water flow is suppressed by the presence of the Rodman Reservoir.

Anne Harvey-Holbrook of the Save the Manatee Club said her organization supports the dam removal because it would allow better access to "warm-water habitats," like Silver Springs, that the manatees use in the winter.

Supporters of the dam and the Rodman Reservoir cite a list of reasons to keep the existing system, including the economic benefit of a large bass-fishing water body.

Kaster and other environmentalists say the loss of the bass fishing would be offset by new economic activity related to the restored river system and new recreational facilities.

"There is plenty of flat water in North Florida for me to fish that I'm happy with," said Kaster, who is a fisherman. "But there is only one Ocklawaha River."