Environmentalists revived a decades-old initiative to have the Rodman Reservoir removed, which would add fresh water to St. Johns River, reducing the salinity spikes that are killing underwater plants.
In an administrative challenge filed Monday with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Forest Service, two members of the Florida Defenders of the Environment said removing the dam at the border of Putnam and Marion counties would help restore the Ocklawaha River.
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, Vice President of the Florida Defenders of the Environment and law professor emeritus at the University of Florida.
The petition is in the initial stages of review, according to Jane West, the attorney who filed the suit on behalf of Kaster and Little.
West said that a bigger influx of fresh water from the Ocklawaha would combat the high salinity in the St. Johns River, which is killing off submerged aquatic vegetation, a primary food source for manatees and a prime ground for estuaries.
“Everything from manatees to submerged aquatic vegetation and the restoration of the forested flood plains in and around the Ocklawaha River, there are too many ecological benefits to enumerate,” she said.
The USDA and US Forest Service will have to review it, make an internal decision of whether to accept it and then proceed with the terms outlined within it. There is no “particular deadline” for this to happen, West said, but she expects for the agencies to acknowledge the petition within the month.
If the agencies choose to accept the petition, the next step would be drafting a set of rules to implement a coordinated management plan to partially restore the Ocklawaha River and remove the Rodman Dam “in a way that will yield the most beneficial economic result for Putnam County and the surrounding areas,” West said.
The last significant debate over the dam came in 2015, when Jacksonville officials linked a plan to dredge the St. Johns River with the removal of the dam as part of a port expansion, but the effort died in the 2015 Legislature.
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 petition, though, states that the area of land in the Ocala National Forest, which contains the Rodman Dam, is currently being illegally occupied by the State of Florida.
In 1994, the State of Florida applied and was given a “Special Use Permit,” which authorized the building of the dam. That permit expired two years later, in 1998, and has been extended twice to allow the state to apply again to legally occupy the land. The US Forest Service directed the state to renew the permit in 2010, but the state never did, according the petition.
Putnam County Commissioner Lee Harvey, who doesn’t think the dam should be removed, thinks the petition filing is coming now only because the filers are trying to get it in before President Barack Obama leaves office.
West said the move to file the petition now is correlated with Obama’s last months in office while he still has the ability to issue executive orders, even though the entire process will take years.
“This is a magical time when a president is about to leave office and those executive orders start coming out on an almost daily basis,” she said.
“There have been multiple attempts over the last three months by a group of environmentalists and high powered politicians meeting with the executive branch to compel the removal of Rodman Dam, and, while it is a priority, it hasn’t happened yet,” West said.
Harvey called the petition “meritless” and maintains that the land in question underneath the Rodman Reservoir belongs to the state of Florida when former-Senator Lawton Chiles expanded the property.
“Using administrative privileges and going through the channels that they are going through is ludicrous,” Harvey said. “If they really had a case, they would be in a better situation than what they are.”
Stewart Pentowski, 56, who’s been fishing at the reservoir for the past 34 years, thinks the fight between the opposing parties could impact those local fishermen who come down to the dam with “rods and reels” the most.
“Most people that I know who fish are saying leave it alone,” Pentowski said. “You’ve already done what you’ve done; leave it alone. I think that they should make a decision, and they should stick with it just like we have to with anything we do. We make a decision; we live with it.”
News Service of Florida contributed to this report.