Failure to act on Kirkpatrick Dam due to politics of inertia


Published: Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 17, 2013 at 4:30 p.m.

"My words was straight, but my intentions was as crooked as the Ocklawaha River."

— from "The Yearling," by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

What moves more slowly than the water in the Rodman Reservoir?

The politics of inertia.

At least once in a while the St. Johns River Water Manipulation District will crack open the Kirkpatrick Dam in an attempt to stir things up a bit and retard the slow eutrophication of the reservoir.

But the politics of inertia budges not an inch.

Listen, it's been nearly half a century since they bottled up the Ocklawaha, once Florida's loveliest and most ecologically unique river, in order to gouge out the Cross Florida Barge Canal.

Work on the barge canal was halted during the Nixon Administration, for goodness sakes. And the Rodman has ever since been a public works project without a public works purpose.

And yet it exists still. A taxpayer-supported playground for stump fishermen.

Why?

The politics of inertia.

As far as politicians and bureaucrats are concerned, it's easier to leave the Rodman alone than stir up a lot of fuss over the river's restoration.

Every governor from Reubin Askew to Charlie Crist (where are you, Gov. Scott?) has advocated removal of the dam. But our Department of Environmental Posturing does nothing to free the Ocklawaha.

Virtually every relevant state and federal environmental regulatory agency has at one point or another been on record favoring restoration.

A July 1997 DEP report states that "reestablishing the natural flow of the Ocklawaha River ...will provide both environmental benefits and expanded recreational opportunities on reclaimed public lands"

Part of the reservoir itself illegally occupies federal land. And there is no question that its existence has disrupted the migratory patterns of endangered manatee and numerous fish species.

But rather than order the state to evacuate forthwith, the U.S. Forest Service has been engaged in a lengthy and bizarre game of "Let's find the loopholes" with the DEP to maintain the status quo.

What is especially maddening is that making this river whole again would easily be the quickest and least expensive "fix" of nearly all of Florida's well documented environmental woes.

Saving the Everglades is the work of generations at a cost of billions. Reversing the decline of Florida's springs and halting the over-pumping of the aquifer will require a public investment and a commitment to conservation that few Floridians seem willing to contemplate.

But restoring the Ocklawaha? Just breach the dam, throw in a few million for replanting and let nature take its course.

What will be lost? A popular bass fishing hole. But the Ocklawaha was a fisherman's paradise long before the Rodman came along. It will be so again.

Popular support for the Rodman is neither as broad nor as deep as the reservoir itself. The dam would have been removed years ago but for the stubborn resistance of a handful of Florida congressmen and state legislators, most of whom are long dead.

It is, simply, the politics of inertia that continues to squander taxpayer dollars on what Audubon Magazine last year aptly described as "the only dam in the nation without even an alleged purpose."

Why alienate even a handful of loyal Rodman anglers when it's easier to maintain the status quo?

The Florida Defenders of the Environment and the Florida Wildlife Federation have given notice of their intention to sue the feds for their failure to protect the manatee and other endangered species that are threatened by the continued existence of the dam.

It is a shame that citizens must go to court to force our environmental regulators to do their jobs. But 45 years of inertia well demonstrates government's intentions in this regard to be as "crooked as the Ocklawaha River."

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

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