Byline: Thomas B. Pfankuch and Jim Saunders , Times-Union staff writers
TALLAHASSEE -- After years of fending off efforts to demolish the Rodman Dam in Putnam County, key state lawmakers vowed yesterday to try to block a new federal plan to restore the Ocklawaha River by 2006.
For the first time, the U.S. Forest Service this week ordered the state to follow a firm timeline for tearing down the dam and restoring the natural run of the Ocklawaha, which was dammed up in 1968 as part of an attempt to connect the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico with a shipping canal. The project, called the Cross Florida Barge Canal, was never finished but the dam remained.
The dam created a massive stump-laden reservoir in Putnam and Marion counties that has become one of the premier bass fishing spots in the Southeast. A legal and political battle has lingered for decades between environmentalists who want to restore the Ocklawaha and anglers who want to maintain the 9,600-acre reservoir and the economic boost it provides the region.
The Forest Service said it wants the dam and reservoir removed because they damage the water quality in the Ocklawaha, hurt the ability of fish and wildlife to breed downriver and increase the spread of invasive and exotic species. Environmentalists have also said the dam and a set of locks on the east end of the reservoir have led to the death of several endangered manatees.
But legislative opponents of the river restoration, including Senate Majority Leader Jim King of Jacksonville, said they would fight any efforts to provide state money for the removal of the dam. The Forest Service restoration plan includes a call for both state and federal money to remove the dam.
"In order to tear down the dam, you've got to have the money to do it," said King, slated to become Senate president in November. "And so far, the Legislature has disdained earmarking the money for that purpose."
The demolition of the dam and the restoration of the Ocklawaha has been one of North Florida's biggest environmental issues for the past decade. Former Gov. Lawton Chiles and the state Cabinet, which regulates the use of state lands, voted in 1992 to support tearing down the dam, but lawmakers have repeatedly scuttled the idea.
Florida owns the 7,200-foot-long dam, but the federal government has a stake in the matter because it owns some of the land where the dam is located and also about 600 acres of national forest land swamped by the reservoir. The timeline set by the Forest Service would include a gradual drawdown of the river over the next five years during which 2,000 feet of the dam would be removed.
Forest Service spokeswoman Denise Rains said the decision to set a timeline for restoration of the Ocklawaha was done in conjunction with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Gov. Jeb Bush, who has supported restoration. Rains said the federal government will enforce its timeline despite any action that may occur in the Legislature.
"We fully intend that those timelines be met," she said. …