In a step forward for one of Florida’s oldest environmental battles, the U.S. Forest Service says it will take another look at the impact that a 44-year-old dam is having on wild species which migrate and live in the Ocklawaha River.
The dam is an outdated vestige from a long-abandoned federal project called the Cross Florida Barge Canal, which intended to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico.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.
The Forest Service’s decision to revisit the dam’s impact came in response to a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue which Earthjustice filed on Feb. 21. Earthjustice’s legal action aims to protect imperiled manatees and shortnose sturgeon, two species which are blocked from migrating in the Ocklawaha River because the dam operated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection turns a 16-mile stretch of the river into the unnatural Rodman Impoundment.
An April 12 letter from the U.S. Forest Service’s parent agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says the agency will re-initiate consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service under the Endangered Species Act to determine the dam’s impact on endangered manatee and the threatened shortnose sturgeon.
Earthjustice is representing the Florida Defenders of the Environment, a group which has long advocated for restoration of the once-free flowing, spring-fed Ocklawaha River; and Florida Wildlife Federation, whose members fish, boat and canoe throughout Florida and have stood arm-in-arm in that fight.
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.
“I think it is a great question for the Forest Service to revisit—should the federal government keep allowing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to artificially block a waterway and harm the rare species that need access to it?” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
“We’re heartened to see the U.S. Forest Service step in at this point and take a hard look at whether the Florida DEP should operate this dam, which is causing grave damage to the Ocklawaha River and harming manatees and other wildlife,” 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 partially remove the dam and restore the Ocklawaha. Based on that plan, the federal 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.
The Forest Service’s letter says the agency will revisit its previous finding.
“It’s great news that the Forest Service is doing its job to protect the species in the Ocklawaha,” said Manley Fuller, President of the Florida Wildlife Federation. “It is our hope that the reservoir will be drawn down, the dam breached, and the river flow restored.”
Stephen Robitaille, President of the Board for Florida Defenders of the Environment, said: “Marjorie Carr and her colleagues founded FDE more than 40 years ago to stop the Cross-Florida Barge Canal and restore the free-flowing Oklawaha River. Marjorie and FDE got the barge canal stopped. FDE, Florida Wildlife Federation and Earthjustice are now working to make sure the job is completed.”