There are two significant relationships that have come to light during the most recent drawdown of the Rodman Pool on the Ocklawaha River in north central Florida. The first involves the interest and enthusiasm that have been raised through social media platforms—drawing sightseers, kayakers, springs enthusiasts, boaters, anglers, birdwatchers and more to this eighteen-mile-long stretch of damaged floodplain forest. This attention brought to the Kirkpatrick Dam and Rodman Pool has been elevated in direct proportion to the amount of water released, showing a promising involvement between the people of Florida and this river system. For every foot the water fell, another dollar was spent, another photograph was taken, another cypress seedling sprouted, and someone swam in another lost spring.
The second relationship this past drawdown exposed is that of the government and the river, and this second relationship is a tragic opposite of the first. Where the first is a relationship of celebration, hope and mourning, the second is a relationship of failure, deceit and neglect.
When the water held behind the Kirkpatrick (Rodman) Dam was released, the drained pool revealed something far more significant than just an ancient river buried beneath a slab of slow-to-non-moving water. The drawdown gave us an opportunity to viscerally experience what government failure looks like in its dirtiest, most blatantly neglectful moments.
Simply put, the Kirkpatrick Dam and Rodman Pool, built in the 1960s as part of the now-defunct Cross Florida Barge Canal, was a failure of big government spending. It was an incomplete project left for decades until it was decommissioned and turned over to the state with one condition: that a restoration plan be put in place. The state declined to honor that condition and, as such, has been operating the dam without a permit since the beginning of this century. This means that elected officials from the federal level on down have not only failed both their constituents and their legislative responsibility, but have also burdened them with unnecessary tax spending and economic and environmental damage to the residents of Putnam, Marion, St Johns and Duval counties.
Putnam and Marion counties used to attract presidents, dignitaries and movie stars to the free-flowing Ocklawaha River. Putnam County used to promote itself as the bass fishing capital of the world—before there was a dam across that river. For these counties the pool has become an anchor, sinking the entire region and preventing any chance of either economic or environmental recovery.
It is time to hold our elected officials responsible for their neglect and to stop defending this government failure. It is time to eliminate this relentless waste of tax spending and to expedite wealth and recovery.
As long as the Kirkpatrick Dam remains in place, it will be a symbol of poverty and failed promises. As long as the Rodman Pool exists, we Floridians are denied our birthright and held hostage by a decades-old mistake.
We already have a road to recovery. Restoration plans have been developed that would bring anglers, birders and paddlers back to Palatka, that would create equitable recreation and fishing opportunities—opportunities that are available whether or not you can afford a boat—and that would put these counties on the map as not only being weekend destinations but also as being self-governing and autonomous, assertive in their future and proud of their home.
It is time to make the Ocklawaha a world-class destination again. Let’s let lunker bass once more rule the Ocklawaha River. Let’s renew the century-old tradition of running tours upriver from Palatka to Silver Springs. Let’s let the catfish, the redfish, the striped bass, the manatee, the sturgeon and the shad back upriver. Let the hunters and the anglers fill their boats sustainably and the birders and the paddlers and the springs enthusiasts fill their cameras with more than just a mirage. Let all of us once again get to know the sweetest water lane in the world and Florida’s most beautiful, wild and historic river. It is time we free the Ocklawaha River from the government and give it back to the people.