Environmentalists take shot at knocking down dam
Another dam battle was waged Monday in a dispute that dates back to the Nixon era.
Environmentalists and attorneys Bruce Kaster and Joseph Little – through their attorney, Jane West – petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service to tear down the dam at Rodman Reservoir, just south of Palatka.
The team of environmentalists want the dam, which sits on the Ocklawaha River, demolished to restore the river and the ecosystems they say were ravaged as a result of the dam’s construction, according to news reports.
There have been numerous attempts through political avenues to have the dam breached, but Kaster said it’s time to force the federal government’s hand.
“I finally gave up on getting back from a lot of environmental organizations,” Kaster told the Florida Times-Union. “Professor Little stepped up and said he and I will do it ourselves.”
But getting the dam removed will be easier said than done, because Putnam County Board of Commissioners Chairman Larry Harvey and newly elected state Rep. Bobby Payne said they don’t plan to sit idle while an economic and ecological boon is ripped from the county’s grasp.
Harvey said he found out last week a petition was going to be filed, and although he wasn’t surprised, he was still taken aback.
“How ridiculous,” said Harvey, who is the executive director of Save Rodman Reservoir Inc. “You’ve got an organization out there to defend the environment, and they’re trying to destroy an ecosystem that needs defending.”
Rodman Dam was built in 1968 to stem the Ocklawaha flow, as part of the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, which was intended to be a shipping shortcut through the state. But President Richard Nixon stopped the project in 1971, and it was never resumed.
Since that time, environmentalists have cried foul over the dam, which they said led to the destruction of numerous ecosystem.
But throughout the nearly 50 years the dam has stood, Harvey said, a new ecosystem has formed in the reservoir. Local residents make livings taking people on fishing tours in the areas, and many people use the reservoir to catch dinner for themselves, he said.
The dam’s economic impact is huge, Harvey said, with bass tournaments, tours of the reservoir, recreation activities and camping, among other activities, drawing in visitors from other counties and states.
And for local residents, many of whom grew up in the area, Rodman Dam has become a staple in their lives.
“It’s about a way of life that they’re used to,” Harvey said. “We’ve made relationships with our congressmen. We’re not going to sit back and let this happen.”
One state representative is Payne, a Republican from Palatka who won his first term in the state Legislature during the 2016 general election.
Payne’s sentiments reflect Harvey’s, with the representative staunchly against eradicating a structure he said benefits the local economy and the ecosystem at the reservoir.
Despite environmentalists for years calling for the dam to be removed, he said, doing so would make no fiscal sense. The money to remove the dam would be taxpayers’ money, and most taxpayers would rather their money go to something useful, Payne said.
“We’re going to do all we can to save Rodman,” he said. “It’s really the same mentality that this group and other groups like them have had for years.”
Monday’s petition to destroy the dam comes less than two years after another attempt to breach the dam and return the flow to the Ocklawaha River, which is a main tributary to the St. Johns River.
Putnam officials and residents were blindsided in January 2015 when the city of Jacksonville, Jacksonville Barge Port and St. Johns Riverkeeper announced a deal in which the Riverkeeper would not oppose the dredging of the St. Johns River near Jacksonville if the Jacksonville groups could garner enough money and legislative support to have the dam knocked down.
Local residents’ chief complaint with that deal? No one from Putnam was consulted when Jacksonville and Riverkeeper officials were making that arrangement.
The dredging and dam breaching project died at the end of that year’s legislative session due to lack of support.
Payne said local residents fought the destruction of the dam then, and despite this being a federal issue, they will do what needs to be done to stop the latest threat to the dam.
“Why would we destroy something that’s been built for 50 years to please these folks when it would destroy the ecosystem in place?” Payne asked.