Between November 2019 and the end of February 2020, those looking over the edge of the Rodman Dam could glimpse a ghostly forest of long-dead cypress trees normally deep beneath the water of the Rodman Reservoir. This haunting sight is a rarity, coming once every few years as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection draws down the reservoir, exposing the historic path of the once-mighty Ocklawaha River.
“The drawdown is a reminder of what we’ve lost, but also of what is possible in the future,” says Elizabeth Neville, manatee advocate at Defenders of Wildlife.
A key artery for Central Florida and the largest tributary of the St. Johns River, the Ocklawaha River once served as a vital steamboat route throughout the late 1800s, carrying the likes of Ulysses S. Grant and Thomas Edison up the river to the famed Silver Springs. Long after the steamboats stopped, native fish, manatees, and a myriad of other species flourished along the river.
In 1968, the Ocklawaha’s time as a natural, free-flowing river came to an end.
The federal government, in the process of building the now-defunct Cross Florida Barge Canal, built the Rodman Dam, flooding the cypress forests and springs while blocking the flow of the river. Now, Defenders of Wildlife is working to restore the river and its surrounding ecosystem to their former glories.
The Rodman Dam, also known as the Kirkpatrick Dam, provides no major public benefit. The stagnant water requires tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars annually for invasive, aquatic plant control. While the reservoir is utilized by local bass fishermen, the high levels of contaminants in the reservoir render the fish they catch are unsafe to eat for children and women of childbearing age.
However, the removal of the dam would bring many positive changes for both the surrounding community and wildlife. “The dam effectively impounds the river, ‘drowning’ the Ocklawaha’s 20 freshwater springs and inhibiting connectivity of the system for manatees and other wildlife,” said Neville. “By undertaking restoration of the river, the river system and its connected springs could provide critically-needed warm water winter habitat for an estimated 1,000 manatees.” Restoring the drowned floodplain forest around the river would also provide habitat connectivity between the Ocala and Osceola National Forests, benefitting native terrestrial species such as panthers, black bears, and wild turkeys.
Restoring the Ocklawaha River comes with studied economic benefits too. Nature-based tourism is an established industry along the natural portions of the river; by increasing opportunities for these lucrative recreational uses and restoring the habitat for various native species, tourism has the potential to bring much needed economic activity into two of Florida’s poorest counties.
While Defenders of Wildlife and partners have made progress on the issue by bringing heightened media attention to the benefits of river restoration, there is still much work to be done. Local opposition has halted any immediate plans to restore the river by partially breaching the dam, but advocates like Neville are not going anywhere.
“However, you look at this—whether from a public health or economic or environmental perspective—you can only come to one conclusion: we’re better off restoring this river,” said Neville.