Editor’s note: Less than 40 miles from Volusia County, southwest of Palatka and slightly northeast of the Ocala National Forest, is a 50-year ecological disaster that spans two counties. A failed plan to create the Cross-Florida Barge Canal flooded thousands of acres of forest, clogged miles of waterways with invasive vegetation, and made 20 natural springs disappear.
Remnants of dead cypress and ash trees jutted into a dense fog, looking like ghostly soldiers standing in formation. Below the pontoon boat, the water was dark — to the left, a sea of broken branches and trunks rested in muck on a thin sheen of murky liquid.
This is what remains of the historic connection between the Ocklawaha River and the St. Johns River.
The Ocklawaha is the largest tributary of the St. Johns River, but its natural flow was circumvented by the creation of the Rodman Dam — an enduring symbol of decades of human hubris.
Every three to four years, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) draw down the water at the dam, revealing the destruction caused by the dam’s creation and subsequent flooding of miles of river.
During this time, parts of the natural and historical land are visible, giving a glimpse of the Ocklawaha’s past and possible future.
During the drawdown, the water drops 8 feet below the 18-foot norm to prevent aquatic vegetation from amassing — a pervasive problem in the waterway. The lowered water levels expose the layer of bottom muck to the air so it may dissipate, according to the FWC.
A boat tour for members of the media Feb. 18 was organized by the Free the Ocklawaha Coalition, which includes 33 organizations from across the state. Representatives from the St. Johns Riverkeeper, Florida Defenders of the Environment, and Defenders of Wildlife accompanied the journalists on our tour.
In the foggy morning, it was impossible to see the extent of the destruction. Without a horizon line, the dead trees, in sharp relief close up, extended as far as one could see into increasingly ghostly apparitions.
Even on a clear day, the vastness of flooded land would not be comprehensible to the naked human eye. The dam and reservoir flood at least 7,500 acres of land and 16 miles of river, covering around 20 natural springs.
About 3 miles west of the dam, our boat precariously wound around the dead tree trunks, toward a small open pool. In the silence of the morning, we were surprised by a school of what were probably tilapia, according to our boat captain, although the water was too murky for any real visibility.
Hidden 5 feet below us was a lost spring — one of about 20 that are lost below the artificial lake’s waters. Though the water was dark and gloomy, the hidden spring hinted at what it once was — this was Marion County’s own “Blue Spring.”
Karen Chadwick, the captain of the boat, is a longtime advocate for partial restoration of the river.
“It’s full of muck,” Chadwick said. “This entire area is a water lettuce farm.”
“It’s a slow murder,” she added.
As the morning wore on and the fog began to dissipate, we headed south by car to the Eureka West boat launch, more than 10 miles downriver. From there, we would ride the river north, past an uncompleted dam, toward hidden springs and beyond.
At first glance, the waterway appeared to be a classic Central Florida landscape — a meandering river surrounded by cypress.
But as we journeyed north, the effects of the dam, more than 15 miles northeast, became clear.
Along miles of river banks, the cypress were ringed with waterlines, indicating the level of water they normally sit in. At their feet, in the soft, loamy soil, hardwood seedlings unfurled.
These plant shoots are destined to fail — by March 1, the drawdown will reverse, and the waters will again rise over the banks into areas of upland forest.
Capt. Erika Ritter, a local who watched the destruction and now gives boat tours, served as our guide.
“Everything germinated and growing now will die,” Ritter said.
Farther north, the landscape was unnaturally situated, like looking at a crooked picture. A plateau held aquatic plants, lying flat on the high ground. Beyond lay what appeared to be a dying forest, the trees stressed from high water almost past the breaking point.
Here, the banks were dotted with locals, whose access to the shore is restricted when the river is flooded.
“Access to the river is a social disparity issue,” Jenny Carr, granddaughter of the environmentalist Marjorie Harris Carr, said. “It’s water as a barrier.”
By the end of the day, the overwhelming feeling was one of seeing trauma — of viewing a long-term act of violence on the land.
After a day on the water with environmental advocates, it was difficult to comprehend the arguments of those who would keep the dam as it is, or to reconcile the desire for good fishing with the unnatural effects of the dam. To local environmentalists, it constitutes an environmental disaster that has been perpetuated throughout time.
Even if fishermen are correct that the dam provides excellent fishery habitat — a claim that is hotly contested by environmentalists — the far-reaching deleterious effects on other native flora and fauna, not to mention the missed opportunities for ecotourism, are just as great.
Ecotourism, particularly along the St. Johns River, is a huge economic driver for Volusia County.
If the Cross-Florida Barge Canal was entirely completed, the landscape could never have been the same.
Instead, a failed plan, partially completed, has locked the area into an unnatural holding pattern — or, as Jenny Carr referred to it, “a community in purgatory.”
— Witek, a reporter with The Beacon, has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and geographic studies from Stetson University.
20 springs are buried under the Ocklawaha
In Florida, you could use a pencil and trace an unbroken line from nearly every natural waterway to any other — one reason why the water is referred to as an interconnected system.
Like the St. Johns River, the Ocklawaha flows north, beginning at Lake Griffin in Lake County and gaining strength from Silver Spring and the Silver River, a tributary of the Ocklawaha. The river is helped along the way by a series of much smaller, now-hidden springs, as part of the upper Floridan Aquifer.
Other important tributaries of the Ocklawaha include Orange Creek, which flows into Paynes Prairie, south of Gainesville.
Twenty natural springs are buried under feet of water along the Ocklawaha. Some are visible during the drawdown, like Cannon Springs; others, like Marion County Blue Springs, are still hidden.
The Ocklawaha and its connection to the St. Johns were historical migratory routes for wildlife, like fish and manatees. Now, wildlife must skirt the dim waters of the reservoir and head to Buckman Lock. The lock is intermittently open, allowing wildlife to get to the St. Johns, as well as anglers.
Once, the river was used for steamboat tours, and every stop was an opportunity for a burgeoning business community.
“The steamboat tours on the Ocklawaha are really what put Palatka on the map,” Capt. Chadwick said.
Now, the accumulation of invasive plants and the debris from dying trees make it difficult to plan extensive tours or canoe trips, according to our local guides. The way can become so choked, it is impassable for boat motors, and potentially dangerous for canoers.
“It’s an unreliable recreational resource,” Chadwick said.
— Eli Witek