One or more Florida legislators, yet unnamed, have the enviable opportunity to undo the tragic mistake of a previous generation and be lauded as Florida Springs Champions. With bipartisan support in the house and senate appropriations committees, these champions are uniquely positioned to convince the 2020 legislature and Governor DeSantis to do what no other legislature/governor in the past 50 years has been willing or able to do – restore the 20 Lost Springs of the Ocklawaha River.
In 1971, a geology doctoral student at the University of Florida, Elizabeth Abbott, published a white paper titled “Twenty Springs of the Oklawaha [sic]”. Described as “crystal pools”, these limestone, artesian groundwater springs, in combination with Orange Springs, were estimated to add about one third of the flow of the Ocklawaha River before it enters the St. Johns below the Rodman Pool.
The largest of these Lost Springs in terms of flow and surface area was Marion Blue Spring, privately owned but open to all for recreational pursuits, including fishing and swimming. Historically, Blue Spring emptied to the Ocklawaha River via Indian Creek, a five-mile clear spring run, just upstream of the current location of the Rodman Dam. Based on old timer interviews, Dr. Abbott claimed that “the most discriminating of seasoned fisherman marveled at the ‘quality’ of fish at Blue Spring not to mention the ‘quantity’”; and that “freshwater mullet and catfish swam like giant denizens convoyed by nervous bream, but the large bass was the most sought-after catch.”
She finished her description of Blue Spring with these words, “gone is the blue crystal pool and the jet-mirror stream, replaced by dead vegetation and murky water.”
Flooded by the artificial impoundment called the Rodman Pool, Blue and the other springs with names like: Bright Angel, Catfish, Cedar Landing, Sims, Bud, Mullet Cove, Indian Bluff, Tobacco Patch, and Cannon, have been lost for 50 years since the 1968 closing of the Rodman Dam as part of the ill-advised Cross-Florida Barge Canal. Only visible intermittently when the State of Florida draws down the level of water held in the Rodman Pool to flush massive rafts of rotting vegetation downstream to the St. Johns River, the uncovered springs of the Ocklawaha were compared to “blue eyes” peering skyward from the Floridan Aquifer by noted river guide and Florida author, Lars Anderson.
The historical and environmental significance of the Ocklawaha cannot be esteemed too highly. Site of numerous prehistoric mounds and archaeological sites; popular 19th century inland steamboat route to the heart of Florida’s wilderness; and recipient of clear groundwater inflows from the world’s historically largest, and best-known Silver Springs; the Ocklawaha is the largest tributary to Florida’s longest and most commercially important river – the St. Johns.
Through an inexplicable series of historical missteps and bad decisions, the living Ocklawaha and its precious springs have suffered some of the worst environmental depredations wrought by human civilization in North Florida. The only thing that is good about today’s dammed Ocklawaha is that it can still be released from the “foot across her throat” as eloquently stated by another river guide and child of the river, Erica Ritter.
During the past 50 years, a long list of former Florida governors and senior agency staff have called for the restoration of the Ocklawaha River and springs. But, in an unfathomable twist of modern society, the will of these powerful leaders has been stymied by a small but vocal group of bass fisherman that oppose restoration.
Breaching the antiquated barge canal dam and returning the river to its natural channel is not only the most cost-effective future for the river, but is most beneficial with regards to downstream water quality and water quantity, regional economic benefits, public use of the river for recreational boating and fishing, and the ecological health of the St. Johns, Ocklawaha, and Silver Rivers.
Ocklawaha restoration is clearly in the public’s interest and inevitably will be part of Florida’s future. The only question that remains is who in Florida’s government will open those “blue eyes” and be the river’s champion?
Dr. Robert Knight is Director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute. He first studied Silver Springs in the late 1970s and hypothesized that the damming of the Ocklawaha River was the principal factor responsible for the measured 60+ percent decline in Silver Springs fish populations.