Editor’s note: Half a century ago, the great environmental awakening that swept Florida and the nation helped stop the Cross-Florida Barge Canal. But the project’s last remnant, a springs-drowning dam on the Ocklawaha River, still stands. Newly released documents show the aging dam may threaten more than ecosystems. State officials acknowledge it is at risk of breaching—possibly endangering hundreds of rural homeowners who live nearby. This story previews the WUFT series WATERSHED, launching this summer to investigate statewide water quality fifty years since the Clean Water Act and Florida Water Resources Act of 1972. Funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, University of Florida journalism fellows reported on Florida’s waters half a century after those sweeping laws. What progress can the state celebrate, and what waters are still ailing, or worsening amid climate change, pollution and outmoded infrastructure? What bold actions are possible now?
The Rodman Dam stands 28 feet tall on the Ocklawaha River, symbolizing a wall of political defiance more than a half-century old. Small pockets of fishermen lean on the rusted barrier leading up to the crossbridge, throwing lines in with hopes of reeling in their dinner.
Fishermen remain either blissfully or willfully unaware of why or how the dam came to be.
To Linda Martin, 60, the dam is a tourist attraction. Martin, a resident of Starke — a small town 40 miles north — said she and her husband just missed the cutoff to book a spot in the nearby Rodman Campground for Easter Sunday.
“The dam’s been here forever,” she said. “Why take away something historical?”
Free the Ocklawaha River Coalition chair Margaret Spontak is the latest in a long line of environmental defenders who say the history worth saving is the natural one — the river drowned by the dam. The hardworking retiree continues to fight for her late brother’s dream: to bring the dam down.
A 261-page Florida Department of Environmental Protection dam safety report released in March has given the decades-long battle a renewed sense of urgency. What was once a low-hazard structure with no potential for death or flooding has changed as it’s aged.
As the dam gets older, risk seems to mount.
The so-called “failure analysis” contracted by DEP changed the dam risk level to from low to high hazard, meaning that death is a possibility in a failure scenario.
“There is evidence of probable loss of life resulting from a dam failure,” the report reads. Still, the DEP redacted over 70 pages of the report in making it public, leaving a precise analysis of risk unclear.
“You can’t play with people’s lives,” Spontak said, water gushing through the dam behind her.
Despite the report listing more than 530 homes along the Ocklawaha and connecting waterways at risk in a worst-case scenario, there has been no concerted effort to notify homeowners of the potential danger.
“There will be loss of life associated with a catastrophic failure, in their estimation,” said Casey Fitzgerald, a retired senior manager with the St. Johns Water Management District, now science chair for Free the Ocklawaha, a coalition of environmental NGOs and eco-tourism companies that want the dam removed. “If you’re in a trailer or manufactured housing, you could be in serious trouble.”
The Florida Defenders of the Environment is hiring an independent engineer to fully interpret the report and likelihood of dam failure.
With so many pages of the report redacted from the public, it’s hard to quantify the risk. With blacked-out charts and tables, the report does conclude, however, that overtopping — when the flood outlet cannot release water fast enough and water rises above the dam — is “not likely to occur.”
A DEP spokesperson said leadership is working on an opt-in emergency notification system. The report recommends further study to better understand the risk.
Click the graphic below to explore WUFT’s searchable database of every address listed at risk in the FDEP’s 2021 Kirkpatrick Dam Inspection, which we obtained under the state’s public records law.
Emily Gann lives in Welaka’s affected Sportsman Harbor neighborhood. The unique, colorful homes in the family neighborhood dot the eastern coast of the deep blue St. Johns River. When she bought her home along the river two years ago and moved from Jacksonville, she did research into risk and flood insurance.
She said she doesn’t think people should wait for officials to tell them about what could happen to their homes, especially if they’re in a flood zone anyway.
“It’s just a given,” Gann said.
A handful of other nearby residents felt the same, they said — or cared even less.
For years, the dam’s fish-loving political constituency has worked in its favor. It’s now named after one of its most stalwart proponents — the late state Sen. George Kirkpatrick. He supported the dam so fervently that a “Save Rodman Reservoir” bumper sticker was put on his casket in 2003.
An emblematic environmental battle
In 1971, President Richard Nixon halted construction of a larger project of which the dam was just a piece: The Cross Barge Florida Canal. The president formerly supported the controversial project, but he was attuned to the rising environmental movement of the era.
The dam itself, however, has stood the test of time through nine presidents and 10 Florida governors.
Whether it stays or goes still lies in the hands of legislators and the governor. Gov. Ron DeSantis has been lauded as a “green Republican,” appropriating over $4.4 billion for various environmental and water conservation projects.
Taking down the dam isn’t one of them.
The process to remove the dam would cost roughly $25 million. Urgent repairs, however, will cost the FDEP $1.34 million, a spokesperson said, not accounting for others that may be needed as the dam continues to age.
The spokesperson said no official was available for an interview. Instead, they wrote in an email: “The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will continue to engage stakeholders to determine the best path forward. DEP remains dedicated to using the best science to protect Florida’s water quality and resources and is committed to working with all agencies involved.”
The housewife from Micanopy and a remnant of political warfare
Rodman Dam was built as one of the first steps of construction for the Cross Barge Florida Canal, a passage that would have allowed ships to cross Florida through an inland waterway.
The idea originated with 16th century Spanish conquistadors, and was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935. It wasn’t until 1964 that Congress funded the project and construction began.
A crossway connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico was an economic dream for Florida’s boosters. But environmental activists saw it as a nightmare.
One key figure in halting canal construction was Micanopy’s Marjorie Harris Carr, who went up against prominent proponents of the canal like Nixon.
Historian Peggy Macdonald, Carr’s biographer, said Carr was often portrayed in the media as a respectable housewife. She was also a wildlife ecologist and much savvier than she led on, Macdonald said, coordinating a statewide effort to convince scientists to join the effort to stop the canal.
Macdonald said the idea of a small-town woman bringing down the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was an enticing narrative for the public. Carr used it to her advantage.
“She knew the power of PR,” Macdonald said.
Macdonald said in a time when women were often underestimated and given limited opportunities, Carr persisted. Nixon changed his position and halted construction of the canal in 1971, eager to earn the support of the broadening environmental movement. While the late president is often credited with stopping the project, Macdonald said, Carr was a major force.
The organization Carr founded – Florida Defenders of the Environment – still exists. In 2019, her granddaughter, Jennifer Carr, became its president.
In an October episode of the Welcome to Florida podcast, Carr told the story of how she got involved. Alongside her advocacy with FDE, she works with stink bugs at the University of Florida’s entomology department.
One day, she peered out the window of her office on the UF campus to see none other than DeSantis in acourtyard, introducing Tom Frazer, Florida’s first-ever chief science officer.
She ran over with a handwritten sign that read: “Free the Ocklawaha.” Carr then handed Frazer a copy of MacDonald’s book about her grandmother.
Carr wrote an op-ed in The Gainesville Sun the next day. “The way I see it, state Sen. George Kirkpatrick couldn’t handle a woman (my grandmother) opposing him with science and so the dam remained as a monument to 1970s sexism that is anti-science and anti-environment with a trophy bass fish as the mascot,” she wrote.
“It’s been 48 dam years. Let’s not make it 50.”
And yet, 48 has now turned into 51.
Advocates say taking down the dam would be a boon to local ecology: 20 lost natural springs could flow again; six historic fish and shellfish species returned; Ocala’s Silver Springs rejuvenated; migration patterns and warm habitats for manatees and other marine life opened up.
Every three to four years, water managers lower water levels in the reservoir about 10 feet to kill off invasive aquatic plant species like hydrilla that may interfere with fish. What lies below is a graveyard of what’s been lost: nearly 8,000 acres of flooded forest, stumps rotted off at the pool’s high water mark and some of the 20 naturally occurring freshwater springs, crushed by 21 billion gallons of water the dam holds back.
Science is on the side of removal.
Florida politics, however, hasn’t quite caught up. More than 50 years after the dam’s construction, the governor hasn’t taken a public stance on restoration.
While Macdonald said she believes Carr would be inspired by the persistence of environmentalists who carry on her legacy, she’d be frustrated by the fact that the dam still stands. The younger Carr agreed.
“I know she was optimistic that eventually is bt would happen,” she said. “I mean, it’s inevitable. And now we’re in an age of dam removal.”
St. Johns River and The Great Florida Riverway
The dam’s impact isn’t limited to the Ocklawaha. The ecosystem connects to the St. Johns River near Palatka and is part of the Great Florida Riverway, a 217-mile river system running from Lake Apopka in Central Florida to the northeastern-most point on the St. Johns.
Rodman Dam’s harmful effects extend throughout the estuary–a productive and biodiverse blend of fresh and saltwater, said Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper. For example, seagrasses depend on freshwater flows to the coast.
“If it wasn’t causing significant damage, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, but many people say that it should have never been put in place,” Rinaman said. “Now we need to fix the wrongs that were put in place that put a tourniquet on the Ocklawaha River 50 years ago.”
Since Hurricane Irma, the St. Johns River has seen a drastic decrease in seagrass, a food source for manatees. Rinaman worries about toxic algae, more likely to bloom without the biofiltration seagrass provides. “That’s the critical kidney function of the river,” she said. “Just can’t like we can’t live without our kidneys, our river can’t live without that biofiltration.”
The seagrass expert Robert Virnstein has found that the dam holds back more than 150 million gallons of freshwater a day from the St. Johns. “I think we’re in a critical moment,” Virnstein said. “The little bits of seagrass that’s there – I don’t know how long it can hang on.”
Solutions: Dam removal and recreation area revitalization is the answer
The Free the Ocklawaha River Coalition has been working with a UF landscape architecture senior to visualize possibilities for a revitalized Rodman Recreation Area, a popular spot for fishermen and families in Putnam County.
Kathryn Stenberg, 23, said she’s been reimagining what the space could be for her senior thesis. She stresses that bringing down the dam wouldn’t stop fishing. In fact, she said fishing amenities could be strengthened along with an emphasis on family fun with a floating dock, playground and spaces for food trucks.
While many are worried about losing the recreational value of the reservoir, a new design could expand activities it’s currently used for, like fishing and camping. Having longtime park-goers understand that what they love about it won’t disappear is important, she said.
“By making sure you introduce valuable cultural and recreational elements to this site, I think that really brings people in contact with this unique process,” Stenberg said.
Politics has been a common thread throughout the life of the dam. Though she has no indication from local legislators about whether they’re taking the safety report seriously, Spontak is hopeful.
The coalition failed to push through legislation on the dam in this year’s legislative session. But Spontake said she’s energized after seeing DeSantis’ support for Everglades restoration. Her part of Florida deserves close attention, too, she said.
After dozens of 12-hour workdays, Spontak is ready to take a step back and regroup. Strategy is key to getting through to the public and legislators next time around.
Spontak will rally as much support as she can muster around the safety report, which she sees as a now or never moment.
“This is the ‘wow’ for northeast and central Florida,” she said. “We need help.”
Five decades of political warfare sit atop the 2,700-foot wide structure. Mother Nature could restore itself, if a vocal minority would let it.