LESLIE POOLE: FLORIDA NEEDS TO REMOVE THE DAMN DAM ON THE OCKLAWAHA RIVER

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Earlier this month I stood in breathless awe, witnessing a “miracle” of modern technology – a wild-running Elwha River in northwestern Washington State. I consider it a wonder because just 10 years ago the Elwha was a river in trouble.

Dammed in two places in the early 1900s for hydroelectric power generation, the river had become an ecological nightmare. Fish such as Coho and Chinook salmon could not leave the ocean and enter its clear waters and spawn in some 70 miles of prime nesting areas.

The river no longer carried sand to the shore. As a result, its beaches disappeared, resulting in a lack of wildlife habitat. Sites sacred to the Klallam Tribe were inundated by reservoirs, including the site believed to have birthed the tribe. Imagine not being able to access that important place for a century because of a man-made obstacle.

All of this has changed. Starting in 2011 at the cost of $324 million, the dams were slowly removed and the results are no less than spectacular. Evidence of the hydroelectric plants is sparse. There are now 70 acres of beach and the fish came back immediately in populations larger than initially expected. It is a story of success, caused by the largest dam removal project in the United States.

Last week there was more good news with the announcement that four hydroelectric dams that prevent salmon migration on the Klamath River in California and Oregon will be removed by 2020. Decommissioning of these dams is estimated to cost $300 million.

Removing dams and restoring rivers is part of a new environmental ethos embraced by citizens and governments that recognize the long-term benefit of natural systems and fisheries.

Now it’s time for a similar story in North Florida.

There, a remnant of the boondoggle Cross Florida Barge Canal continues to stop the flow of the Ocklawaha River. The Rodman Dam, renamed the Kirkpatrick Dam for the local state senator who championed it, was part of the ill-fated U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to dig a ditch across the state for barge traffic. After a grassroots uprising by citizens, scientists, and environmentalists who argued correctly that no one had considered the ecological damage that would be caused, President Richard M. Nixon halted it in 1971.

The canal was almost one-third completed, with its most heinous structure – the dam – intact along with its abutting reservoir that has been aptly described as an “aging, festering impoundment” in what had been a jungle-like twisting Ocklawaha.

The dam, referred to by some locals as “Dam Shame,” prevents the migration of 10 fish species, including striped bass and American shad that once left the Atlantic Ocean to spawn in the river. And the locks that allow boat passage occasionally have killed endangered manatees caught in its metal gates.

Today that lock and dam system costs $1 million a year to maintain and another $2 million is needed for repairs. But the damage to endangered species and a once abundant riverine ecosystem is incalculable. Restoration might cost $20 million – a mere pittance in Elwha and Klamath terms and less than the last 45 years’ worth of maintenance costs.

It’s time for Florida’s damned dam to come down.

Many groups, particularly the Florida Defenders of the Environment, have advocated this for the last four decades. Their opposition agrees that the dam and reservoir may have been a bad idea, but now they enjoy bass fishing there.

However, once the river is allowed to move freely, its natural plants and trees will sprout. Springs suppressed by the reservoir’s waters will once again flow. Important fish species will be able to travel between ocean and fresh water, their stocks able to replenish. Bass historically were fished on the Ocklawaha – its restoration will only enhance that game fish.

It’s time for Florida’s politicians, who have mostly distanced themselves from the de-authorized canal project, to rally around removing the dam.

It would be an act of restoration for the river and perhaps for the faith of the electorate disillusioned with Tallahassee’s seeming lack of environmental concern. Maybe then we all will be able to witness another modern miracle – a free-flowing Ocklawaha River.

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Leslie Poole is assistant professor in the environmental studies program at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.  She is author of Saving Florida: Womens Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth Century. Column courtesy of Context Florida.