Earthjustice filed a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue the U.S. Forest Service today to protect imperiled manatees and shortnose sturgeon, two species which are blocked from migrating in the Ocklawaha River by a dam operated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that turns a 16-mile stretch of the river into the unnatural Rodman Impoundment.
Earthjustice filed the notice on behalf of the Florida Defenders of the Environment, a group which has long advocated to remove the 44-year-old Kirkpatrick Dam (formerly Rodman Dam) and to restore the once-free flowing, spring-fed Ocklawaha River; and Florida Wildlife Federation, whose members fish, boat and canoe throughout Florida and which has stood arm-in arm in that fight.
Today’s legal action is a claim under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and it focuses on the fate of manatees and an ancient fish called the shortnose sturgeon.
The dam was part of a long-abandoned federal project called the Cross Florida Barge Canal, which intended to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico. Although that project was halted by President Richard Nixon back in 1971, the dam has stayed in place, impounding the Ocklawaha and flooding 9,000 acres of floodplain forest, including approximately 600 acres in the Ocala National Forest.
Over the years, numerous state and federal officials recommended restoring the Ocklawaha River to its natural state. The Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and the U.S. Forest Service repeatedly expressed support for draining Rodman Impoundment, restoring the Ocklawaha River, and establishing it as a National or State Wild and Scenic River. In the late 1970s, President Carter, Florida Governor Askew, and numerous independent scientists concurred with state and federal agencies’ recommendations to restore the river. In 2003, Governor Bush sided with environmentalists and supported efforts to restore the river. In fact, every Florida governor since Governor Askew has favored restoration. Despite this near unanimous support for restoration, specific proposals have stalled, primarily due to opposition from the organized bass fishing community who favor bass tournaments in the Rodman Impoundment over restoration.
“It is time to get rid of this outdated and destructive dam once and for all,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. “In this day and age, why is the Florida Department of Environmental Protection artificially blocking a waterway and harming the rare species that live in it? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“We are asking the Forest Service to step in and protect these species,” said Erin Condon of Florida Defenders of the Environment.
A substantial portion of the Kirkpatrick Dam sits on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service, and the state DEP is supposed to have a permit to operate the dam on federal land. Because the operation of the dam impacts endangered species, state and federal officials were required in 2001 to do a biological assessment under the Endangered Species Act as part of the permitting process.
At the time, the agencies planned to remove the dam and partially restore the Ocklawaha. Based on that plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a biological opinion under the Endangered Species Act, concluding that the proposed restoration would not jeopardize the continued existence of manatee or bald eagles. In a separate biological assessment, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Forest Service concluded that the proposed restoration project would have “no adverse effect” on the shortnose sturgeon, which is listed as an endangered species under the ESA.
But the dam was never removed and the restoration project never happened. Currently, the Florida DEP does not even have a permit to operate the dam on federal land. Earthjustice is challenging the federal agencies’ previous “no jeopardy” opinion for manatee and the “no adverse impact” finding for shortnose sturgeon, because both of those conclusions were based on dam removal and restoration, which DEP never did.
“It is past time to restore the river and reopen passage to anadromous fish which used to be plentiful throughout the system; we are optimistic that the Forest Service will step in and do the right thing to protect species and restore this beautiful river,” said Manley Fuller, President of the Florida Wildlife Federation.
Stephen Robitaille, President of the Board for Florida Defenders of the Environment, said: "Forty years after the Barge Canal was declared a failed boondoggle and halted, removal of the dam will finally help restore biological and economic vitality to this historic Florida river."