“The reasons to restore the Great Florida Riverway are as diverse as the people urging its restoration. From improved habitat for native species to a healthier economy, reconnecting the Great Florida Riverway will benefit Floridians and our visitors from around the world.”

Elizabeth Neville, senior Gulf Coast representative at Defenders of Wildlife
Gainesville, FL

Today, the Free the Ocklawaha River Coalition facilitated a press conference showcasing strong public and scientific support for Governor DeSantis to restore the Great Florida Riverway. During the event, several experts discussed the many benefits of restoration while the coalition unveiled a five-part roadmap showing how the Governor and legislature can advance this nationally significant project. The coalition also revealed that over 20,000 members of the public had signed letters asking the Governor to act, which the coalition will deliver to his office soon. The event, livestreamed from University of Florida (UF) Pugh Hall, took place almost 50 years to the day after President Nixon signed the 1971 executive order to halt canal’s construction.  

“Today is a defining moment for the Ocklawaha River, heart of the Great Florida Riverway,” said Margaret Hankinson Spontak, president of the Free the Ocklawaha River Coalition, in her introduction. “Although we are recognizing this historic moment, our Coalition is laser-focused on the future,” said Margaret Hankinson Spontak, president of the Free the Ocklawaha River Coalition, in her introduction. “With the Rodman Dam past its life expectancy and use of the reservoir declining, it is our collective responsibility to restore this nationally significant system while revitalizing the river communities of Palatka and Silver Springs.”

The Ocklawaha River is the heart of The Great Florida Riverway, a vast 217-mile system comprised of three rivers and over 50 springs flowing north from the Green Swamp and Lake Apopka in Central Florida to the Atlantic Ocean. During the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, the Rodman/Kirkpatrick Dam was built on the Ocklawaha, severing the river and flooding over 7,500 acres of valuable forested wetlands, 20 springs, and 16 miles of the river. 

“The Cross Florida Barge Canal was the largest public works project in American history stopped in the middle of construction,” said Dr. Steve Noll, UF history professor and co-author of Ditch of Dreams: The Cross Florida Barge Canal & the Struggle for Florida’s Future. “A group of citizens activists, led by Marjorie Harris Carr, led the fight to stop the canal, because of environmental concerns to protect the beautiful and natural Ocklawaha River. However, Kirkpatrick Dam (a remnant of canal construction) still blocks the Ocklawaha from flowing freely.” 

Along with Dr. Noll, three scientists spoke at the event of the myriad environmental and economic benefits that undamming the Ocklawaha River would have for the surrounding area. The scientists were Dr. Ed Lowe, the retired Chief Scientist from St. Johns River Water Management District; Dr. Quinton White, Executive Director of the Marine Science Research Institute and Professor of Biology and Marine Science at Jacksonville University; and Dr. Andrew Carter, senior conservation policy analyst at Defenders of Wildlife.

“Understanding the full significance of a free-flowing Ocklawaha River requires a regional perspective,” said Dr. Lowe. “It would reunite four regionally-significant ecosystems: Silver Springs, the Ocklawaha River, the lower St. Johns River, and the Southeastern Atlantic Bight.  The subsequent benefits to fish and wildlife populations would be of sufficient breadth to attain national significance. The substantial economic and environmental benefits strongly argue for restoration of a free-flowing Ocklawaha.” 

“Estuaries are highly productive ecosystem that rely on the input of freshwater to remain that way,” said Dr. White. “Allowing the restoration of the Ocklawaha River will increase the freshwater flow into the St. Johns River and help offset some of the unintended consequences of the many impacts we have done over the past decades, plus improve resiliency and protection against sea level rise.” 

“Florida is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, but its wildlife and plant communities have been hard-hit by projects like the Cross Florida Barge Canal,” said Dr. Carter. “Restoring the natural flow of the Ocklawaha River could help recover habitat for threatened and endangered species like the manatee, Florida panther, and shortnose and Atlantic sturgeons.”

The over 20,000 requests for action were collected by several member organizations of the Free the Ocklawaha River coalition, including Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Save the Manatees Club, St. Johns Riverkeeper, 1000 Friends of Florida and American Rivers. These supporters expressed a variety of reasons behind their support for restoring the riverway, including economic benefits, improving water quality, return of migratory fish species and providing essential warm water winter habitat for hundreds of manatees.

“The reasons to restore the Great Florida Riverway are as diverse as the people urging its restoration. From improved habitat for native species to a healthier economy, reconnecting the Great Florida Riverway will benefit Floridians and our visitors from around the world,” said Elizabeth Neville, senior Gulf Coast representative at Defenders of Wildlife, who helped lead the effort.

Founded in 2020, the Free the Ocklawaha River Coalition is made up of over 40 local, state and national conservation organizations dedicated to restoring the Ocklawaha River, thereby reconnecting the Great Florida Riverway and unlocking numerous benefits for the region. Following the delivery of these calls of action, the coalition hopes to work with Governor DeSantis and his staff to finally complete this 50-year mission.

Beginning at 5 p.m. ET on February 2, you can watch the re-broadcast of this media briefing on the Free the Ocklawaha YouTube channel, found at

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With over 1.8 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit defenders.org/newsroom and follow us on Twitter @Defenders.

Media Contact

Jake Bleich headshot
Jake Bleich
Communications Associate
jbleich@defenders.org
(202) 772-3208

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