Has One Florida Dam’s Day Finally Come?

Conservationists have waged a 41-year battle to free “the sweetest water-lane in the world” by tearing down an unnecessary dam. Their efforts have seemed hopeless—until now.

Last April I journeyed to Florida to inspect America’s most unique dam and its influence on one of America’s most unique waterways. Rodman Dam on the Ocklawaha River is the only dam in the nation without even an alleged purpose. It is a 44-year-old vestigial appendage of what, in the words of Carl Buchheister, Audubon’s president from 1959 to 1967, would have been “one of the greatest boondoggles ever perpetrated.” 

Rodman was the only one of three planned dams that was completed and closed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of a canal to bisect Florida. The canal was designed for ships when work got under way in 1935, but funding quickly ran out. By the time work started again in 1964, the project had been scaled down to accommodate only barges. There would be vast impoundments connected by excavated channels and accessed by five locks.

The 182-mile Cross-Florida Barge Canal would have run from Jacksonville south and upstream on the St. Johns River (to be dredged), overland to the Ocklawaha (to be dredged and impounded) to a point near Silver Springs (thus destroying most of the Silver River), then overland again to the Withlacoochee River (to be channelized, dredged, and impounded) and on to Yankeetown and the Gulf of Mexico. 

In 1971, with the project almost a third complete, President Nixon killed it, rendering the Cross-Florida Barge Canal the biggest unfinished public works project in history. So today Rodman Dam just sits there, ruining terrestrial and aquatic habitat and blocking fish and wildlife movement. 

But never have prospects for restoring the Ocklawaha and its floodplain been brighter. America is easing away from the notion that dams are sacred monuments to be preserved in perpetuity. In the past decade they have been coming down all across the nation—Elwha and Glines Canyon dams in Washington; Birch Run and West Leechburg dams in Pennsylvania; Marmot, Condit, and Savage Rapids dams in Oregon; Sturgeon River Dam in Michigan; and LaSalle Dam in New York, to mention just a few.

And now, in response to a 60-day notice of intent to sue filed by Florida Defenders of the Environment (FDE) and the Florida Wildlife Federation in February, the U.S. Forest Service—custodian of land, water, fish, and wildlife compromised by the dam—has agreed to reassess damage to endangered species. Removing or breaching the dam is the only way to fix that damage. Pending Forest Service action, the suit is on hold.


America doesn’t have another river quite like the Ocklawaha. Rising from swamps and lakes in north-central Florida, it winds north along the western edge of the Ocala National Forest, then veers east at Orange Springs, where it’s collected by the St. Johns River. Fed by clear springs gushing from a water-rich feature called the Floridan Aquifer, it is semitropical, canopied, ancient. And unlike most other Florida rivers, almost all of them its junior, its course was set by a fault line raised by primordial earthquakes. It drains 2,800 square miles, much of it sanctuary for unique plants and animals, including the Florida scrub jay, that survived on this high ground when the rest of the peninsula was under the sea.

Eighteenth-century naturalist William Bartram’s description of the Ocklawaha was the inspiration for “Alph, the sacred river” in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan.” And a decade after the Civil War, poet Sidney Lanier, who explored the Ocklawaha by steamboat, described it as “the sweetest water-lane in the world, a lane which runs for more than a hundred and fifty miles of pure delight betwixt hedgerows of oaks and cypresses and palms and bays and magnolias and mosses and manifold vine-growths.”

It remains basically unchanged on April 9, 2012, at least where our party meets it on this windless morning fragrant with forest-fire smoke. We access it from the Silver River, a third of the way down the Ocklawaha’s northern course. In my canoe is FDE director Erin Condon. In two other canoes are FDE board president Steve Robitaille—an English professor and Emmy Award–winning filmmaker preparing a documentary on the watershed and its history; longtime Ocklawaha advocate and former Putnam County Environmental Council president Karen Ahlers; Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida; and our professional guide, Lars Andersen, an accomplished birder, local historian, and author.

Sunlight, muted by the smoke, filters through overhead branches festooned with Spanish moss. Some of the more dominant trees in this rich, diverse bottomland forest are bald cypress, tupelo, sweet gum, red maple, swamp bay, cabbage palm, river elm, water hickory, green ash, and pumpkin ash. 

After a decade of drought almost all the flow comes from the Silver River, fed by the clear water of Silver Springs. So natural tannin is even more suppressed than usual. I can count the dorsal spines on largemouth bass 10 feet down. Clouds of juvenile and adult sunfish, mostly bluegills and redbreasts, hang and turn in the gentle current as if from a mobile. Florida gar, bowfins, catfish, and golden shiners ghost through and over waving eelgrass and carpets of coontail. Atlantic needlefish, iridescent green and silver, shoot across the surface. In still backwaters chain pickerel lie in ambush.

The quantity of coontail bothers Lee, who has loved and defended the river for four decades. “Only 15 years ago you could see big patches of sand,” he says. “All the lawns and septic tanks around the City of Ocala send nutrients into the groundwater that feeds Silver Springs.” 

Below the forest canopy is a lush understory of shrubs and wildflowers. Blue damselflies skip across the surface, their ranks swelling as the day warms. The croaking of red-bellied woodpeckers and the whistling of cardinals is nearly constant. 

We flush and reflush great and snowy egrets, green herons, great blues, little blues, belted kingfishers, and wood ducks. Pileated woodpeckers and white ibises cross over the canopy. Coots, gallinules, and pied-billed grebes bob through the yellow blooms of spatterdock. Red-shouldered hawks, all unseen, shout from dark timber. The brilliant yellow plumage of a male prothonotary warbler shows on a low branch as we eat our lunch on a sandbar under a bluff raised by an ancient earthquake.

Around every bend Florida cooters and red-bellied turtles, sometimes five to a log, survey us with shrewd, half-closed eyes, most refusing to bestir themselves. Basking on higher ground are alligators—mostly juveniles and also unafraid, although now and then we are startled by a loud splash. 

As we move downstream the coontail thins, revealing more sand patches. Save for the overabundant coontail in the first five or six miles, we find the Ocklawaha as Bartram found it—“a just representation of the peaceable and happy state of nature which existed before the fall.” 

Ten miles downstream from the old steamboat stop of Gore’s Landing, the unique river becomes less so as it starts to feel the effects of Rodman Dam. The plants least tolerant of standing water—bays, Dahoon hollies, and cabbage palms—thin, sicken, and disappear. Then the ashes and maples go and, finally, even the cypresses and tupelos.


Written in this progression of dead and dying trees is a timeline of habitat destruction dating to the closing of the dam in 1968. The canal was hugely unpopular then. In fact, it was hugely unpopular even at the height of the Great Depression with the nation desperate for work. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, who opposed the project on both financial and environmental grounds, rejected the Ship Canal Authority’s original loan application. President Roosevelt was in favor but blew with the political winds, promising funding and releasing a little when support surged, then reneging in the face of opposition from citrus growers, railroads, and conservationists. 

A compelling argument befell canal promoters when German U-boats started taking out U.S. shipping on the Atlantic. “The submarines and Adolph are aiding us,” the director of Florida’s Canal Authority, Walter Coachman, brazenly intoned. 

From day one the canal was pushed by Democratic presidents. Truman liked it at least as much as Roosevelt but couldn’t wangle appropriations; Eisenhower had no interest. Kennedy requested major funding; Johnson secured it. And on February 27, 1964, Johnson presided over a second groundbreaking, this one at Palatka. “The challenge of modern society is to make the resources of nature useful,” he declared. And, with that, he knocked a policeman from his horse by setting off 150 pounds of dynamite spiked with oil and charcoal for effect.

In June 1970, amid great fanfare provided by the Corps’ PR firm, a small, obsolete barge only half loaded with dolomite (a mineral used in fertilizer) attempted to negotiate a completed section of canal on the Gulf side and promptly got stuck. Canal Authority chairman L.C. Ringhaver hadn’t realized the accuracy of his earlier pronouncement that this shipment would be “the forerunner of things to come.”

Nixon killed the canal not because he cared about the Ocklawaha or knew anything about the project but because he perceived doing so to be a fine way of tucking it to the Democrats. As late as October 1970 he was clueless enough to ask Claude Kirk, Florida’s governor, about “this canal” that people, especially Kirk, had been complaining about. “Are you building it?” he inquired. 

“No, you are,” responded the governor. 

Pushing Nixon into the decision were (most notably) Interior Secretary Walter Hickel; Council on Environmental Quality chair Russell Train; environmental adviser John Whitaker; and Nathaniel Reed (then environmental adviser to Governor Kirk but soon to join the Nixon administration as Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks). No sooner had the president issued his order to save what he called the “uniquely beautiful” Ocklawaha than he received a tongue-lashing from his pal Bebe Rebozo of Key Biscayne. Nixon promptly instructed his staff to reverse course, but Whitaker, as he recalled to Steven Noll and David Tegeder (see Ditch of Dreams; University Press of Florida, 2009), “did what all good aides do . . . nothing, hoping the storm would blow over.” It did.

As David White (formerly the FDE’s Ocklawaha River coordinator and now directing Gulf of Mexico restoration for the National Wildlife Federation) explains: “Congress didn’t officially deauthorize the canal until 1990, at which time the Forest Service said to the state, ‘Okay, when are you gonna get all this water off our land?’ Transferring ownership of the structures to Florida was going to take a while, so the Forest Service gave the state a five-year special-use permit, a binding contract that required it to remove the structures ‘in a reasonable amount of time’ or the U.S. could do it and charge the expense to the state.”

Meanwhile, the Forest Service apparently lost the permit. No one appeared to even know about it until 1999, when White unearthed it with a state record request three months before it was to expire. This precipitated a lengthy environmental review by the state and a Forest Service record of decision for dam removal, but in the face of pressure from the bass-tournament lobby, the Forest Service refused to act. 


The result is an aging, festering impoundment called Rodman Reservoir (though it provides no one with water) and, alternately, Rodman Pool (though there’s no swimming because of the alligators). Despite a forecast for strong winds, we found it waveless on April 10. 

No one unfamiliar with the unspoiled reaches of the Ocklawaha, the lost fish and wildlife, the lost springs, the 16 miles of ruined river, or the 10,000 acres of drowned forest would call the impoundment ugly—especially now that the water was coming back up and covering some of the muck and rotting timber. The previous winter Rodman Reservoir had been drawn down, as it is about every three years, to kill the alien vegetation, especially hydrilla, that depletes oxygen and impedes bass-boat traffic. Herbicides are also used, though sparingly these days. All this and the operation of Buckman Lock between the Ocklawaha and St. Johns rivers costs state taxpayers about $1 million per annum.

Nor is Rodman lifeless. As we paddled out from Kenwood Landing, the “oinks” of pig frogs rose from hundreds of acres of spatterdock. Boat-tailed grackles and red-winged blackbirds perched on dead cattails. In open water large alligators floated, distinguishable from the floating logs only by their slow passage or, when motionless, their eye ridges. A mature bald eagle hunched on a dead snag. On lower snags anhingas in breeding plumage dried their wings. Ospreys hovered. Gar and catfish swirled. And low, glitter-painted bass boats with huge outboard engines screamed up the flooded riverbed.

Like most manmade impoundments in the South, the reservoir exploded with bass in its early years, then started dying, choking on the rich biomass of decaying timber and forest duff. In 1985 the oxygen-swilling stew of bacteria and rotting vegetation killed an estimated 8.5 million fish; three years later it killed an estimated 2.5 million. Rodman defenders tell me major fish kills don’t happen anymore, but Karen Ahlers says they’re just not reported. “Two years ago we [the Putnam County Environmental Council] discovered a big gizzard-shad kill,” she told me. “The lock tenders wouldn’t let our guy take photos.”

Since 1971 the sole justification for the dam has been bass-boat traffic and bass tournaments—not bass fishing itself. It’s all about going fast in absurdly overpowered boats. The dam and lock shut out most endangered manatees, and if they get back into the system in big numbers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might insist on speed limits. If all you want to do is catch bass, you’ll have better luck floating the Ocklawaha or St. Johns or driving to some of the 200,000 acres of natural lakes within 25 miles of the reservoir. “The impoundment duplicates something we have a tremendous amount of,” says Audubon’s Charles Lee. “And the dead river under it is something that’s comparatively scarce.” 

As president of Save Rodman Reservoir, Inc. and from his seat on the Putnam County Commission, Ed Taylor crusades to “SAVE Rodman From Evil Destruction,” as his card puts it. The impoundment was “as good as gone,” he brags, until he started supplying “facts” about its tournament value. The Congressional effort to restore Clean Water Act protection to unnavigable waters that feed navigable ones is actually a plot by environmentalists and their federal allies to seize control “over all the watersheds in the United States,” he warns his fellow bass boaters.

Why, I asked Taylor, should Florida taxpayers cough up $1 million a year to maintain a dam that serves no purpose? “Well,” he replied, “one of Governor Jeb Bush’s aides stopped me in the hall one day, and he asked me the same question. I said, ‘We’re standing in the capital building built in the middle of woods that deer and bear used to roam. Let’s take it down.’ He walked off and never did speak to me again.”

Every Florida governor since Reubin Askew (with the exception of the current one, Rick Scott) has strongly advocated removal of Rodman Dam. In 1995 Governor Lawton Chiles ordered it taken out. It didn’t happen. Every time removal appeared imminent, Florida lawmakers—whipped up by local politicians like State Senator George Kirkpatrick (R-Gainesville), State Senator Jim King (R-Jacksonville), and Gainesville Mayor-Commissioner Rodney Long—convinced their colleagues to keep the dam “in its natural state,” as Long put it. 

While the reservoir has provided additional habitat for some very common fish (including such aliens as tilapia and armored catfish), it has eliminated or harmed many more species than it has helped. In the middle of the reservoir we saw a mullet leap. A few make it through the lock, but they’ve basically been shut out of the system. They used to swarm up into Silver Springs, grazing on algae and surface scum, thereby removing some of the nutrients that now degrade water quality there and in the river. 

The dam also blocks the migration of American eels, American shad, channel catfish, white catfish, Atlantic sturgeon, and endangered shortnose sturgeon. And it has extirpated most Florida-strain striped bass from the state by denying them access to their primary spawning habitat—the Ocklawaha and Silver rivers. Now the only stripers in the entire St. Johns system are non-reproducing, northern-strain hatchery fish.


At a spot 30 feet from the impoundment’s south shore, Ahlers signaled Condon and me to stop paddling. “We’re over Blue Spring,” she said. “I swam in it when I was a kid. It was canopied, and its run to the Ocklawaha was almost a mile long. There were so many fish. . . .” And her voice trailed off. 

Blue Spring is one of at least 20 springs destroyed by the dam. Not only are they inundated but the weight of water suppresses the flow that used to maintain water quality in the St. Johns system. These springs and Silver Springs provided important cold-weather refuge to manatees, now endangered. All but a few that slip through the lock are eliminated from the reservoir and upper river. Springs still accessible to manatees elsewhere in Florida are drying up as groundwater is diverted for human use. So manatees increasingly depend on heated outfall from power plants. But some of these sources are drying up, too, as plants shift to closed cooling systems. According to Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation for Save the Manatee, a restored Ocklawaha would “provide hundreds and hundreds of manatees with winter habitat and get them away from artificial, unreliable sources of warm water.”

Paddling north again, we entered a ghost forest of moldering trees on part of the national forest right-of-way that hadn’t been cleared. Most had rotted off at 18 feet and, with the reservoir not yet full, protruded four feet above the surface. But every few minutes we fetched up on stumps just below the surface and hidden by the dirty water. The impoundment is a scary, dangerous place, especially for motorboats. So many props and lower units had broken off on stumps that the bass-boat lobby prevailed on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to raise the level from 18 feet to between 20 and 21 feet, thereby drowning 5,300 additional acres of public forest. “Watching this and the rest of the forest die over 40 years was sickening,” remarked Ahlers. 

From 1966 to 1968 she also watched the clearing, much of it done by the caterpillar-treaded, 22-foot-high, 306-ton “Crusher Crawler” built at the Jacksonville Shipyard. “The mechanical marvel . . . mows down trees and pushed them underground as though they were matchsticks,” effused the Orlando Sentinel. And that was the problem. The dead wood provides an endless source of nutrients for alien weeds. Governor Chiles called the Crusher Crawler a “colossal failure,” complaining that trees kept “popping up like corks, and the Corps is now having to spend tremendous sums of money keeping a dredge out picking up the logs, piling them on the banks for burning.” They’re still popping up today, but now they just accumulate along the shore.


"We do not build dams for religious purposes,” as former Interior Secretary and river advocate Bruce Babbitt liked to say. We just keep them for religious purposes, and in Florida that would be competitive bass fishing. But the pro-Rodman ranks may be thinning. Senators Kirkpatrick and King are dead. Mayor-Commissioner Long is out of office. And thanks to the FDE and the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Forest Service appears to have been rousted from timidity and torpor. 

After I’d said goodbye to my companions I drove up onto the dam. Gazing out over the brown, stump-filled, snag-lined expanse of reservoir, I recalled two passages I’d copied into my notes from Ditch of Dreams—one from the Florida Waterways Committee’s 1962 promo: “Several hundred miles of waterfront property will be created by the Canal—thousands of acres of beautiful crystal clear lakes will surge into being . . . with sandy shores and beaches providing countless, unlimited natural swimming, picnic, and camping areas.” The other passage, a 1970 pronouncement by the Corps, reads as follows: “The barge canal will save the Ocklawaha from nature.” 

But Nathaniel Reed, who fights as tirelessly for fish and wildlife now as when he helped run Nixon’s Interior Department, told me this: “What a great example of restoration it would be to remove the Rodman Dam. Let’s watch and marvel over the revegetation of the empty flats and cheer as the clear, clean river runs its merry way into the St. Johns.” 

In Rodman’s frothy discharge I watched anglers catching some of the mullet that had stacked up along the dam’s base. I hadn’t known it was possible to entice these herbivores to a hook. Except during drawdowns this is about the only place around the reservoir accessible to shore anglers. And during those brief drawdowns the floodplain explodes with green as native seeds swept down from the Ocklawaha germinate, only to drown a few weeks later. Unflooded sections clearcut for the canal are now indistinguishable from the untouched forest I’d paddled through. Given a chance, bottomland forests heal fast here.


What You Can Do

Leading the charge to restore the Ocklawaha is Florida Defenders of the Environment. To support their effort and learn about the latest developments, go to fladefenders.org/joinfde.php. If you live in Florida, urge Governor Scott to be true to his Tea Party roots and save you and your fellow taxpayers $1 million a year by removing Rodman Dam.