Proponents of a free-flowing Ocklawaha River have never tired of paddling upstream in pursuit of their decades-long cause and Tuesday they announced plans for a new effort that aims to unite advocates and anglers for the good of the entire St. Johns River system.
They envision the Buckman Lock, which controls the flow from Rodman Reservoir into the St. Johns, being partially converted into a recreational center for fishing, educational programs, duck hunting, camping and viewing of wildlife — including the manatees that are expected to grow in numbers with an open river and spring system.
The Rodman Dam area would include upgraded boat ramps and potentially a restaurant, recreation outfitter, playground and other amenities.
University of Florida landscape architecture students created both projects.
Margaret Spontak, president of Free the Ocklawaha River Coalition for Everyone, said the ideas are part of a multiyear effort to eventually restore the river.
“A wise Putnam County commissioner said we have to show people what they will gain, not just what they will lose,” Spontak said. “By doing this incrementally in two stages we know our true costs, we have more time to develop funding partners but most importantly, we have another year to do that people plan — to show people what they can gain.”
The effort is called Ocklawaha 2021 for Everyone.
Throughout Florida’s history the Ocklawaha, which starts in Lake County and divides Marion and Putnam counties, was a favored hunting and fishing ground for indiginous people. Spaniards created missions along it and it became a boat travel corridor to the St. Johns River for early settlers.
It took on a greater significance when the federal government in the 1930s provided initial money to create a cross-Florida barge canal from the Atlantic, via the St. Johns, to the Gulf of Mexico on the Ocklawaha and series of canals.
Work on the project continued slowly. In 1968, the Rodman Dam near Palatka was completed and flooded 7,500 acres of wetlands, 16 miles of river and about 20 springs.
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Work was halted for good years later when it became apparent the canal was an ecological disaster and a financial boondoggle. Opponents of the barge canal then set their sights on the Ocklawaha’s restoration.
But Rodman Reservoir, created by the dam, had become a favorite of bass anglers. Despite various state and federal agencies along with political leaders recommending the dam be breached — also for both environmental and financial reasons — it has remained with the strong support of fishers.
Among the speakers at Tuesday’s announcement was Andrew Carter, senior conservation policy analyst for Florida Defenders of Wildlife.
Carter said restoring the river could help boost populations of species that have been in decline, including the Florida panther and Florida black bear.
“Florida is one of the most biodiverse states in the country … and is a biodiversity hotspot for threatened and endangered species,” Carter said. “The Ocklawaha river and its floodplain are an important part of (a corridor), providing habitat for fish, birds, mammals and reptiles.”
The coalition is searching for money on several fronts, including grants.
It also hopes Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature will see the value of the Ocklawaha plan in terms of the environment, recreation and a boost to the economies of Marion and Putnam counties through tourism.
In DeSantis’ proposed budget last week, he earmarked $360 million for Everglades restoration.
“I think we are due — it’s central and northeast Florida if you look at the whole system. We are all paying taxes throughout the state, so project funds need to be sorted out accordingly,” Spontak said. “This is such a big return on investment. We have the plan, we have the land. It’s been said that it has all the elements that would meet requirements.”