As Controversy Builds, Putnam County Unites to Save Rodman Reservoir

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Eugene Little from Gainesville, Florida casts his line as he fishes in the spillway of the Senator George Kirkpatrick dam that controls the water level of the Rodman Reservoir. (Photo credit: Bob.Self@jacksonville.com)

Article courtesy of Teresa Stepzinski | January 24, 2015 | Jacksonville.com | Shared as educational material

PALATKA | Akaia Moore, 3, smiled proudly while her tiny hands tightly gripped the handle of her fishing rod — just like her daddy, Travis, taught her.

Her line dipped into the fast-moving waters of the Ocklawaha River at Rodman Reservoir.

“It’s good fishing. And I bring my family. It’s just good family fun, and we like to eat specs, the speckled perch,” Moore said. He has been bringing his family to fish at the reservoir’s dam for about eight years. His wife and son couldn’t make trip with them on Jan. 13, but father and daughter had a good time.

Moore is teaching Akaia and her brother, Joao, 4, to fish just as his father taught him. He heard about the good fishing at the reservoir from friends. Now, it’s their favorite spot.

How much longer that family tradition continues is uncertain because the dam is once again targeted to be torn down.

Many people say breaching the dam will improve the overall health of the St. Johns as well as clear the way for significant economic gains for the region. That’s the position of a coalition of the Jacksonville Port Authority, known as JaxPort, the JAX Chamber, the city of Jacksonville and St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman, who hammered out the plan without inviting Putnam or Marion County officials to the table, much less notifying them of their effort.

The goal is to keep the Riverkeeper from pursing a lawsuit to block the proposed dredging of the St. Johns River shipping channel, a project Jacksonville civic and business leaders see as key to keeping the port competitive with other regional ports. Rinaman said breaching the dam will improve the overall health of the river.

“I rather they’d leave it alone. I don’t like the idea of them taking it down,” said Moore of Interlachen.

Moore wonders what will happen to the banks near the spillway where they fish if the dam is breached. The two banks are some of the few places accessible for people without a boat, he said.

The people who love the Rodman Reservoir say it represents the heart, soul and economic aorta of Putnam County.

Creating it was a mistake nearly 47 years ago, but the lake evolved into a unique ecosystem that is an environmental gem vital to the county’s quality of life and economy, say many residents, community leaders and businesspeople.

“The reservoir is what I refer to as the mother of all wetlands, and an ecosystem like none other,” said Larry Harvey, president of Save Rodman Reservoir, a nonprofit citizens group.

Harvey, also a Putnam County commissioner, grew up hunting and fishing with his father and grandfather at the reservoir. As a youngster, he even bathed in the Ocklawaha, and he learned to drive on the pipeline access road and Forest Road 77.

Slideshow: RODMAN RESERVOIR: A look at photos from the past

For Harvey and many others, the reservoir is more than a world-class fishing hole. It’s a vibrant habitat supporting native plants and wildlife that serves Northeast Florida by filtering water going into the St. Johns River. In addition, the reservoir is a watershed that is used as a water source for people and animals, said Harvey.

“This is old Florida at its best,” Harvey said recently as an osprey screeched while circling overhead. A few days earlier, a black bear — as if playing a makeshift game — ran alongside Harvey’s pickup truck as he drove along the reservoir.

Encompassing 9,500 acres, the 15-mile-long reservoir is nestled in Putnam and Marion counties in the northwest corner of the Ocala National Forest.

The earthen dam with its four spillway gates was built across the Ocklawaha River in 1968, creating the reservoir by flooding woodlands.

Slideshow: RODMAN RESERVOIR: A fisherman’s paradise

Although commonly known as the Rodman dam, it’s officially the Kirkpatrick Dam — named in honor of the late state Sen. George Kirkpatrick, one of the reservoir’s staunchest advocates. A bronze plaque memorializes him there.

When Kirkpatrick died in 2003, he was buried with a “Save Rodman Reservoir” bumper sticker on his casket.

Six years earlier, environmental activist Marjorie Harris Carr — as passionate in her opposition to the reservoir as Kirkpatrick was in his support of it — was buried with a “Free the Ocklawaha” bumper sticker on her casket.

The dueling bumper stickers are a quaint way of showing the unwavering passions of both sides of the dam issue. The two sides are often armed with conflicting studies or different interpretations of data. They debate whether the bass fishing on the reservoir is really world class, whether the lake filters pollutants before the water spills over the dam and what impact draining the reservoir will have on wells.

PASSION FOR RESERVOIR

Kirkpatrick’s diehard passion for the reservoir is alive and well in Putnam County.

For many people, the reservoir is considered a premier largemouth bass fishery prized by anglers from around the world who compete in numerous championship tournaments there. Many local anglers, including families from throughout Northeast Florida, rely on the reservoir bass, speckled perch and other fish as food for their supper tables as well as for recreation.

Nature lovers seek it out because of diverse wildlife, including manatees with calves, bald eagles, osprey, the threatened Everglades kite, rare limpkin, black bear, deer and, some locals say, even an elusive-but-unconfirmed Florida panther. The reservoir also is a favorite of some kayakers, and its wooded shores draw hikers and campers.

“We are a whole lot more than rednecks with bass boats,” said Harvey, noting the stereotype some opponents use when talking about the county, where the reservoir consistently ranks as among the nation’s top 10 bass fishing destinations.

The Ocklawaha is the largest tributary of the St. Johns River.

About 135 miles long, the Ocklawaha flows north from its headwaters in the Green Swamp area south of Apopka until emptying into the St. Johns River west of Welaka.

At normal levels, the reservoir holds about 21 billion gallons of fresh water. Roughly, 700 million gallons a day flow over the dam into the St. Johns River. The reservoir protects the St. Johns from an overload of nutrients by filtering it before it goes over the dam into the river, Harvey said.

Removing the dam and restoring the Ocklawaha has been a goal of environmentalists and government regulators for nearly the half century the reservoir has existed.

Environmental advocates say dredging could damage the St. Johns River by increasing salinity levels to a point that threatens important wetlands and sea grasses. They say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to set aside about $2.9 million for mitigation falls woefully short of what would be necessary to make up for the damage dredging would cause.

Rinaman and others have advocated for a plan that includes breaching the Rodman dam and restoring the St. Johns River’s largest tributary, which would pump hundreds of millions of gallons of fresh water back into the river and — theoretically — offset salinity increases caused by the dredging.

Reservoir defenders have won numerous times when politicians and power brokers threatened the dam.

“This is not a new battle for us. What people tend to overlook is we’re powerful people, too, when we all pull together. And that is what we do,” said Dana Jones, president of the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce.

‘SLAP IN THE FACE’

Now, the alliance of Jacksonville business leaders, city officials and the St. Johns Riverkeeper wants to remove the dam, which they consider an obstacle to a controversial plan to dredge the St. Johns River.

That alliance signed a non-binding pact to push for authorization to remove the dam and restore the Ocklawaha and its floodplains, which would send millions of gallons of fresh water into the St. Johns. In exchange, Riverkeeper Rinaman would drop plans to challenge the St. Johns River dredging project in federal court. JaxPort wants the shipping channel dredged to deepen it so it will be ready for the mega-cargo ships that are soon expected to traverse the larger Panama Canal.

The Riverkeeper’s court challenge would drag out the dredging project ,which is seen as a key element in order for the city to compete with other ports such as Miami and Savannah, both of which are involved in dredging projects now.

The coalition includes powerful political leaders including Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown; former mayor and current University of North Florida president John Delaney, and Daniel Davis, chief executive officer of JAX Chamber. Supporting the alliance are U.S. Reps. Ander Crenshaw, a Republican, and Corrine Brown, a Democrat.

Putnam County officials said they learned of the alliance and its plan after the Times-Union detailed it in a story published on Jan. 11.

Their exclusion from the discussion was an insult and nothing less than a “slap in the face,” county commissioners said, an opinion they later shared with JAX Chamber officials.

“How on God’s green acres can you have a regional meeting and leave out Putnam County, which is the home of Rodman dam and the Ocklawaha? … Putnam County is not the stepchild of the region. We’re not going to sit back and just let things happen,” county commission Chairman Karl Flagg said during a commission meeting two days after the story was published.

Commissioners said dredging Jacksonville’s shipping channel is important but not at the expense of Putnam County residents and businesses.

“When did we become a pawn in Duval County’s game of chess? … When did we become a toy, something for them to just throw away?” Commissioner Walton Pellicer II asked.

UNIQUE ECOSYSTEM

Rodman Reservoir was created when the Ocklawaha was dammed as part of the ultimately abandoned project called the Cross Florida Barge Canal, a proposal intended to link the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico with a shipping channel.

“This failed attempt of the Cross Florida Barge Canal gave Putnam County a big basket of lemons, and we made lemonade out of it,” said County Commissioner Chip Laibl, who is also an immediate past president of Save Rodman Reservoir.

A self-described staunch environmentalist, Ruth Lawler of Fort McCoy lives on land she owns adjacent to the reservoir where she is an avid kayaker and hiker.

She said breaching the dam to restore the river — estimated previously to cost $20 million to $25 million — is an expensive investment with no guarantee to do what advocates say. Building the dam was wrong to begin with but removing it now also is wrong, she said.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right. Destroying this resource that has now adjusted beautifully to its current state would be foolhardy,” she said.

Fishermen from throughout the nation as well as Canada and overseas routinely journey to Putnam County specifically to fish Rodman Reservoir for its trophy bass, said Joseph Nickol of Crescent City, a professional bass fishing guide and a tournament director for the Florida Bass Federation. There are fishing tournaments every weekend and often the competitors go to Rodman, he said.

Draining Rodman will do more than ruin fishing, Nickol said.

“There’s eagles, bear, foxes, all kinds of fish, otters and the osprey have nests all along there. If that water goes away, I want to know what’s going to happen to that wildlife. It’s not going to be able to sustain itself in a narrow river, and that is what the Ocklawaha will become,” Nickol said. “We need Rodman to stay here, not just for us but all the wildlife out there.”

The reservoir is a linked series of complementary environments including an aquatic meadow boasting lilies and other vegetation that attracts wading birds and other wildlife.

About 120 manatees a year — often cows with calves — pass through the dam’s lock, which is equipped with a motion-sensor protection device to prevent it from closing on the gentle mammals that come to forage, Laibl said.

“It’s Mother Nature’s giant salad bar for the manatees,” said Laibl, noting that reservoir water is continuously replaced by the Ocklawaha River’s flow and it’s shallow enough to remain warm and welcoming for the manatees as they forage on aquatic vegetation.

Florida Bass Federation President Mike Sloan of Jacksonville said the additional flow of fresh water touted by those wanting to take out the dam would be short term. He estimated the gain of fresh water for the St. Johns likely would last only for two or three years given the hydrology of the area.

“There are a lot of things that go on there, and to just go out and off the top of your head, change it because you want to get more fresh water into the river isn’t a viable option to me,” Sloan said.

Sloan said the habitat along the lower end of the Ocklawaha River would be destroyed due to the increased water flow. He also said the root structure of larger trees will be undercut along the banks. Once the trees are uprooted, they will block the river below the dam or wash downstream into the St. Johns River, which could pose safety and navigational hazards, he said.

“When it’s all drained down, the only thing that will be gained is a big mud flat,” Sloan said.

The Sierra Club of Northeast Florida, which is opposed to the JaxPort dredging project, fears the alliance’s efforts merely trade an old environmental and economic disaster for a new environmental and economic disaster.

Chairwoman Janet Stanko said they view the project “as raising risks of unanticipated environmental consequences similar to the Cross Florida Barge Canal.”

Kae Andry, the first president of Save Rodman Reservoir, said the dam benefits the river. “The water going through Rodman goes over the dam cleaner than when it came into the reservoir. All of that pollution would flow into the St. Johns if Rodman is removed,” Andry said.

Andry also noted the reservoir is three distinct ecosystems. The first third resembles the old river — twisting, tree-canopied and a swifter current. Then it spreads out in a transitional zone that is wetlands area. The third ecosystem is the reservoir lake itself, which is a prime and popular recreational area, Andry said.

GEARING UP FOR BATTLE

Florida’s Legislature would have to sign off on breaching the dam.

Putnam County residents, business leaders, fishermen as well as elected officials past and present are rallying in a united offense to preserve Rodman, a battle the county has fought and won several times.

Reservoir defenders defeated past efforts to remove the dam involving the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Not even former Florida governors Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush could get rid of it.

“The idea of lowering Rodman Reservoir in order to cleanse the St. Johns River because they are going to do dredging is absolutely ludicrous …,” state Rep. Charles Van Zant Sr. said. “We can dredge out the river without damaging our environment, without damaging people’s lives, without damaging the opportunity that we may have in Putnam County to recover economically in the future.”

Van Zant pledged to meet with the Jacksonville coalition leaders to try to help them understand the reservoir’s importance and realize the damage he said removing it will wreak on Putnam and Marion counties. He also plans to teach his fellow lawmakers about the reservoir’s importance when he returns to Tallahassee for committee meetings prior to the March 3 opening of the 60-day regular legislative session.

“If you empty Rodman Reservoir, you have then lowered the water table for the surrounding area big time. There is a cone of influence that is going to take place, and people’s wells will go dry. And many other people who depend on the water table, which has been low for more than 20 years because of our drought and is just now recovering, will be greatly damaged,” said Van Zant, adding many natural springs also will be damaged.

John Thrasher, the region’s former state senator and now Florida State University president, has been a staunch Rodman supporter. State Reps. Ronald “Doc” Renuart, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, and Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, who are running to replace Thrasher, both support keeping the dam.

Laibl, the county commissioner, said Save Rodman Reservoir has an existing legal fund that is growing. “We are arming up for this battle once again.” Two law firms specializing in environmental law have stepped forward willing to help the organization, he said.

Harvey said contributions are flowing into the legal fund but declined to say how much has been raised. He hopes to avoid a court fight but they won’t back down.

Meanwhile, JAX Chamber officials are now reaching out. On the evening of Jan. 12, JAX Chamber President Daniel Davis called to apologize that the commission found about the alliance via the newspaper, Flagg said.

Christopher Quinn, JAX Chamber vice president for government affairs, delivered an in-person apology at the commission’s Jan. 13 meeting.

“We are extremely apologetic for the severe breakdown in communication. In no way, shape or form should you have read that in the paper or gotten calls about it. You should have been part of the discussion. We should have talked to you,” said Quinn, adding Davis intends to meet with county leaders as soon as possible.

Flagg thanked Quinn for his courage to come to the commission and listen, then gave him a message to take back to Jacksonville.

“No one will take advantage of this county. We don’t roll like that,” Flagg said. “We are thinkers in this community and qualify to sit at the table. We will give respect and expect to receive it.”

RIPPLE EFFECT

The enticing aroma of slowly smoking prime rib wafted through the woods on the breeze about a mile from the Kenwood Boat Ramp on the reservoir. It can be an irresistible invitation to Backwoods Smokehouse restaurant built by Jeanie W. Lee about eight years ago, shortly after her husband died. The Interlachen restaurant with its iconic smoked prime rib sandwich, cinnamon-spiced beans and other homemade family recipes has become a destination.

It’s become a go-to spot for anglers competing in reservoir tournaments as well as those just fishing for recreation.

Folks from throughout Putnam and neighboring counties as well as tourists from as far away as Nigeria, Germany and Japan have stopped in for a bite while visiting Rodman dam, said Lee, who runs the restaurant.

“I built here because of the reservoir and the boat ramp,” said Lee, who lives down the road from Backwood Smokehouse. “This is my livelihood. A lot of my business is fishermen down here fishing … I’m afraid if they do away with the dam, it will really hurt my business.”

Losing the reservoir means so much more than just dollars and cents, said Lee, who like many others practically grew up at the reservoir. Destroying it will be like ripping away part of their heritage, she said.

Tracy Eby of Mannville brought in a stringer full of good-size speckled perch, also known as crappie, destined to be his supper when he docked at Kenwood Boat Ramp on the reservoir after a day plying the water with his rod and reel. Eby has been fishing the reservoir pretty much year-round since the early 1980s.

“This is paradise. … It’s the greatest fishing hole there ever was,” said Eby, who grew up fishing in Jacksonville’s Ortega River and later worked as a commercial shrimper in Georgia until an injury left him disabled.

Draining the reservoir, he said, will hurt recreational anglers as well as those who depend on it to put food on their tables.

“It makes no sense. They formed a paradise here, and now they want to destroy it,” said Eby, shaking his head.

A couple of miles away, Jack Hall deftly maneuvered his sleek orange and white kayak toward the Ocklawaha River after putting in at the boat ramp adjacent to Rodman dam two days after news broke about the latest effort to breach the dam. The Interlachen man regularly paddles the roughly 22-mile round trip from the dam to the St. Johns River. He has done the scenic, if sometimes challenging, paddle a couple of times a season for a decade.

Hall sees both sides of the dam debate.

“Actually, it would enhance kayaking and canoeing substantially. Kayaking and canoeing is impossible on this side because of how open it is. And 80 percent of the time, you get a substantial breeze, if not a wind, and it becomes very dangerous, these things become hard to maneuver,” Hall said.

But fishermen also have valid points, he said.

“As a fisherman as well, I like fishing, but I would like to see things back in its natural state. Perhaps, now, this can be considered the natural state with the dam,” Hall said.

Hall said the risk of negative impacts resulting from the dam’s removal needs to be examined thoroughly.

“It’s nice now. If there is a chance there would be negative impact to the environment by removing the dam, I would say just leave it. There are other places to kayak,” Hall said.

Longtime homeowners Bill and Judy Torode and Lou and Donn Snow live on the banks of the Ocklawaha River at the reservoir. The Torodes live on the Putnam County side; the Snows are in Marion County. Removing the dam, they said, likely would result in erosion and other damage that would send the value of their properties plummeting.

ECONOMIC LIFEBLOOD

Putnam County, population 74,364, is one of the poorest counties in Florida. The rural county’s general fund, which pays for most operations, totals nearly $14 million for 2014-15. In comparison, neighboring St. Johns County, which has about 210,000 residents, has a general fund of nearly $180 million.

Putnam County’s unemployment rate was 7.5 percent in November. Many residents work outside Putnam.

Van Zant, whose district includes Putnam County, estimated Rodman Reservoir costs about $200,000 to $300,000 a year to maintain. But it pumps $10 million to $14 million annually into Putnam and Marion counties, he estimated.

That estimate is likely conservative, said Jones of the county chamber of commerce, which has fought for about 25 years alongside county officials to retain Rodman.

Jones said the most recent comprehensive study — done in 1998 — estimated sportfishing contributed about $41 million to Putnam’s economy, with a third of that money directly attributed to Rodman Reservoir. Now, the overall economic impact might be as much as $60 million with a good portion related to the reservoir, she estimated.

“Not having Rodman, it’s just a nightmare for me to contemplate. We are just so blessed to have it here in our county,” said Jones, noting that tournament fishermen arrive days before the event to practice on the reservoir. And they spend money locally for food, fuel, lodging and fishing supplies, she said.

“We have to retain Rodman. It contributes millions and millions of dollars into our economy,” Jones said.

Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075

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