Florida's Lost Springs

For nearly half a century, a pointless dam on the Ocklawaha River has drowned 20 of Florida’s precious freshwater springs and endangered wildlife. It’s time it came down.

LAST YEAR, RIGHT around the time of the winter solstice, I found myself standing alone on the crest of the Kirkpatrick Dam in north-central Florida looking upstream at the almost empty Rodman Reservoir. The reservoir had been drawn down about ten feet a month earlier, exposing a wasteland of waterlogged grey tree stumps, ghosts of the forest that used to be before the dam was built. The reservoir bottom was exposed in places, dried white like a salt flat. Remaining water was choked with green mats of nonnative plants. As a chill wind blew across the water on this overcast December day, I couldn’t help but think that the reservoir looked more like a desolate wasteland than a river.

The Kirkpatrick Dam sits atop the Ocklawaha River, a twisting 74-mile tributary of the St. Johns River that is fed in part by clear freshwater springs. Behind me, downstream, the Ocklawaha still runs free, a shadowy flood plain filled with a tangle of live oak, cypress, gum, maple, and sable palm, with buttressed trunks draped in Spanish moss. A primal wild forest. A reminder of what used to be.

“The Ocklawaha is a pretty low-key river,” says Susan Rodgers, a local advocate for restoration of the river who has been visiting the area since she was a child. “It’s one of the prettiest rivers, the way it winds through a dark, cypress forest swamp.”

When the 7,200-foot Kirkpatrick Dam choked off the Ocklawaha in 1968 and flooded the Rodman Reservoir, 16 miles of the river were lost, an immense swath of bottomland forest was drowned, and the lower Ocklawaha and St. Johns rivers were compromised by decreased flows. On top of that, more than 20 natural springs — with names like Blue, Bright Angel, Cedar Landing, Mullet Cove, and Tobacco Patch — were buried under accumulated sediment and 20 feet of dark water. But every three to four years, when the reservoir is drawn down to clear it of choking aquatic vegetation, these springs reemerge. The artificial lake becomes river, and for the few months until the reservoir is filled again, we are offered a glimpse of what was, a vision of what could be, and a brief glimmer of hope.

THE RODMAN RESERVOIR was initially conceived of as part of the Cross Florida Barge Canal. The largest planned public works project in US history, the canal would have bisected the Sunshine State to connect the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. The Kirkpatrick was one of several dams and locks that were planned as part of the canal project before President Richard Nixon cancelled it in 1971. His decision is attributed to the passionate campaigning of scientist and environmentalist Marjorie Carr, who founded the Florida Defenders of the Environment in 1969.

By the time the canal was cancelled, however, the Kirkpatrick had already been completed and the Rodman flooded, with the help of a massive machine known as the crawler crusher, which was specially designed to clear the forest from what would become the Rodman pool. The 22-foot-tall machine looked like a tank with two overly wide treads that encompassed the entire body of the monster. It featured a large horizontal bar that protruded in front, used to push trees over so that they could be crushed into the bottom of the future reservoir.

Standing by the reservoir edge, I could almost feel the ground tremble as I imagined the crawler crusher laying the wetland forest flat, ploughing through Indian burial mounds and trampling thousand-year-old cypress. In the end, more than 7,500 forested acres were lost, either cleared by the crawler crusher or flooded when the 15-mile-long pool was filled.

Rodman Reservoir
Kirkpatrick Dam closed off flow of the Ocklawaha River, flooding more than 7,500 acres of forested wetlands, 16 miles of river and at least 20 springs, and blocking upstream migration of many fish and aquatic species. Photo courtesy of Free the Ocklawaha.

It wasn’t just forest habitat that was lost. The Kirkpatrick Dam blocked most endangered manatees from accessing the upper reaches of the river, as well as the 20 lost springs and others like the well-known Silver Springs farther upstream, which had previously provided important warm-water habitat in the winter. It interrupted migrations for white catfish, American eels, and endangered shortnose sturgeon, among other species. And while the reservoir is touted for its bass fishery, the dam cut striped bass off from their main spawning grounds in the Ocklawaha and Silver Rivers. Most striped bass in the reservoir are now hatchery-raised.

“When the dam went into place in 1968 it severed connections, and we are not seeing the biodiversity in Silver Springs that was there before the dam,” Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper and co-chair of the Free the Ocklawaha advocacy committee, says. (Riverkeepers are an international network of water protectors who are the voices of rivers and hold polluters accountable.)

For all these environmental impacts, the Rodman reservoir holds no real purpose.

For all these environmental impacts, the Rodman reservoir holds no real purpose — it is not used to quench the thirst of local communities nor for energy generation. The scuttled canal project rendered it obsolete.

It also requires significant maintenance. All those trees that were crushed into the reservoir floor choked the water of oxygen as they decayed. Millions of fish perished in resulting die-off events in the 1980s. More recently, the reservoir has become fertile ground for aquatic vegetation, particularly nonnative hydrilla and water hyacinth. These plants, too, deplete the water of oxygen and are notoriously difficult to remove.

Every three to four years, the state takes action against the vegetation, draining the reservoir down from around 20 feet to closer to 11 feet, where the water level remains for several months. This has the effect of flushing invasive vegetation downstream and kills the remaining hyacinth and hydrilla through drying. Herbicides are still used between drawdown years to control the growth.

“These drawdowns give us a glimpse of what could be, permanently, if the Kirkpatrick Dam was removed,” says Dr. Robert Knight, founder and director of the research and educational organization Florida Springs Institute, when I met him at the institute’s High Springs, Florida office in December, the day before I explored the lost springs.

IN LATE DECEMBER, after stopping at the reservoir, I set out for Cannon, the best known of the lost springs, to experience it during a drawdown. I was paddling my kayak through a drowned forest labyrinth of grey stumps that seemed to glow like apparitions, making my way up the Ocklawaha River against a twisting, dark water flow when a turquoise halo emerged, a glowing gem in a dark mine. I floated over the clear spring bowl and could see the bottom 15 feet below. I beached, donned my mask and snorkel, and submerged.

The bottom was desolate and smudged with the brown flocculent of decayed vegetation. The spring belched a boiling swirl of accumulated white sand and silt into the clear water as amber-hued bluegill — a native freshwater fish — hovered as if in midair. Cannon was still trying to purge the filth it had collected over the past several years, though the drawdown had started a month earlier.

The Kirkpatrick Dam blocked most endangered Florida manatee from accessing the upper reaches of the river. Photo by Keith Ramos/USFWS.

Bluegill — a native freshwater fish that thrives in Florida’s lakes and ponds. Photo by Phil’s 1stPix/Flickr.

A redbreast sunfish, a cousin the bluegill bream species, also native to Florida. Photo by Keith Williams

Even in its degraded condition, it held a certain beauty. Fish gathered in the clearer water near the spring. Largemouth bass with crisp, wide green stripes that ran the length of their cream- yellow bodies hunted the spring’s deeper edges. Coppernose bluegill with maroon fins hovered like large colorful pixies, their pectoral fins alternately flicking when they came in close to examine me. The waters were still a bit muddy, and native vegetation like celery and hyssop was lacking, but the drawdown gave the spring a chance to breathe for a few months.

Cannon is one of more than 1000 springs in Florida. These are magical, spiritual places for many, and windows into the state’s considerable freshwater resources. The springs originate from the Floridan aquifer, a 100,000 square mile expanse of groundwater that lies under the entire state of Florida and parts of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina. The aquifer is characterized by numerous flooded caves and springs that bubble with fresh water. It is the primary drinking water source for most cities in central and northern Florida, as well as in southeastern Georgia.

The quantity of water emerging from some of the springs is immense. For example, Alexander Springs, which is not among the lost springs, is one of 33 first order magnitude springs in the Sunshine State that each produce more than 64.6 million gallons of water a day. (Cannon is a third order magnitude spring, which produces 646,000 gallons per day.)

I have been visiting Alexander Springs for 15 years and visited it again this winter before snorkeling Cannon. As I swam above the spring, showy red breast sunfish grabbed mouthfuls of sand off the bottom looking for an invertebrate meal. Their red coloring blazed against the white and pale green sand, and their sides glistened gold flecks in the sunlight. Sailfin mollies gathered shyly on the periphery of the spring, where cypress tree roots and knees met water, and hid in the tangle on my approach. They poked their pointed, upturned snouts out into the open slowly, meekly, and if I didn’t move, they came back into full view. The males had electric- blue patches on their tails and threw up their enormous dorsal fins — giant sails checker-boarded with white, tan, black, and blue squares — in an effort either to attract females or fend off other males.

Alexander Springs is one of 33 first order magnitude springs in Florida. Yet health of the spring seemed worse than when I started visiting in the mid-2000s. Photo courtesy of apasciuto/Flickr.

Floodplain forests are important as water-quality filters,flood shock absorbers, and carbon sinks. Photo courtesy of apasciuto/Flickr.

Yet the place looked beat up and used. There was much more bare sand than I’ve seen in the past, and less underwater vegetation. What native plants were left — particularly eelgrass or celery depending on whom you ask — languished. Filamentous green algae covered much of the bottom, and black algae draped from what was left of the underwater vegetation, decreasing the amount of palatable food for fish. The health of the spring seemed worse than when I started visiting in the mid-2000s. It was like visiting a very sick friend in the hospital.

“All springs in Florida are impaired,” says Knight, who worked as an environmental consultant for years before starting the Florida Springs Institute. “It is a complex problem.”

One of the issues is algae. Excess algal growth can often be linked to eutrophication — an overfertilization of water typically resulting from agricultural runoff, or sewage. The increased fertilizer facilitates excess algal growth. When the algae die, its decomposition by bacteria robs the water of dissolved oxygen. But there are other causes as well. “Some springs, like Alexander, have low nutrients such as nitrogen, so the algae problem doesn’t appear to be eutrophication,” Knight says.

In the case of some, there’s another culprit: lack of water flow related to overwithdrawals. While the vast water outputs of springs like Alexander make them feel like limitless resources, the Floridan aquifer is finite. And it’s being heavily used.

“The state throws millions at [spring health decline] and it hasn’t done anything, because they keep issuing permits for new water withdrawals,” Knight adds, noting that the state seems poised to approve a new plan for Nestle to pump and bottle 1.15 million gallons a day from another spring, known as Ginnie. The Florida Department of Environmental Conservation spent $268 million over the last four years on restoration projects aimed at reducing nutrient load in the springs. Knight shakes his head looking down. “Heavy rains a few years ago cleared the algae out of Silver Springs, like flushing the toilet,” he says.

Things are poised to get even worse. When Dr. Knight looks at the projected impact of climate change on these springs, which include decreased water flow and saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers due to sea level rise, he realizes that his work is akin to that of Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up a hill.

“My friends asked me why I was doing this cause it’s kind of like hitting your head against the wall,” he says. “I enjoyed the springs. My kids saw them being degraded. Now they are trashed. I can’t find a healthy spring in Florida. I started to investigate spring health and what I was finding is that springs were dying, and dying exponentially.”

He’s been fighting for the springs ever since he started studying them 40 years ago. “I am leaving a legacy that at least I tried to do something. I am just trying to be the holding action.” After a few moments of silence, he adds: “I think there is hope that we can restore all of our springs if we act. And we can recover the lost springs. All we have to do is take down the Kirkpatrick Dam.”

A ROBUST COALITION of local, regional, and national organizations is fighting for just that — removal of the Kirkpatrick, a free-flowing Ocklawaha, and restoration of the system that has been impacted by the reservoir for nearly half a century. Part of that work involves educating the public, as many people don’t know about the lost springs or the ecological impact of the artificial Rodman pool. That was the case for local Susan Rodgers, who first heard about the missing springs in the 2017 documentary Lost Springs and has since become a vocal member of the Free the Ocklawaha coalition. Rodgers’ first visit to the lost springs, soon after seeing the film, had a profound impact. “Once I saw the springs I realized this is really messed up,” she says. “People in local government are denying the impacts.”

The Ocklawaha in Silver Springs State Park. A coalition of local, regional, and national organizations is fighting for a free-flowing Ocklawaha. Photo by Kathryn Louise.

In addition to education, members of the Free the Ocklawaha are engaged in advocacy; water-quality monitoring; researching the impact of withdrawals on the springs and connected rivers; creating opportunities for politicians, journalists, and members of the public to experience the springs; and engaging community members in contacting their elected representatives and other decision makers. Some coalition members, like Florida Defenders of the Environment, have also sued the US Forests Service to force removal of the dam, part of which lies on Forest Service land. (The nonprofit is currently appealing a November 2019 dismissal of their most recent case.)

Other advocates, like Florida artist Margaret Tolbert — who described a snorkeling experience in the springs as “life changing” — use their work to capture and share their spirit. “It’s the experience of immersion,” Tolbert says of her art, her enthusiasm dripping through the phone. “I try to recreate that in my paintings. Reenacting the experience rather than describing the place.” Indeed, her paintings represent the feel of the springs, the sense of being in them, enveloped by their calming waters, swimming through their beauty.

“The first time I saw the lost springs I was in love and horrified at the same time,” she says. “There are these fantastic dichotomies of so coming alive in spite of injustices. The springs and river have an earnest quality. It’s such a waste of the life-giving source it provides. I wanted to do something to protect them.”

So she produced a book, AQUAFERious, a marriage of art, science, and literature that embodies the springs and advocates their conservation, and a gallery tour around the concept. Her work was one of the driving inspirations behind the Lost Springs documentary and plays an important role in elevating awareness about the issue.

Removing the dam would restore 15,000 acres of river floodplain.

But removing the Kirkpatrick dam is about more than aesthetics and liberating lost springs. As Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, sees it, removing the Kirkpatrick dam would have cascading benefits throughout the ecosystem. “Restoring the Ocklawaha is bigger than the Ocklawaha — it would help restore the entire St. Johns River. The river loses significant water to evaporation when it is impounded so downstream flows are greatly reduced. Water quality is reduced while sitting behind the dam. We have decades of data to show this.”

She adds that removing the dam would restore 15,000 acres of river floodplain, 7,500 acres that are submerged upstream and 8,000 acres below the dam that don’t receive enough water. Floodplain forests are important as water-quality filters, flood shock absorbers, and carbon sinks.

Breaching the dam would also restore the migratory route of mullet, striped bass, and manatees, as well as the movement of other marine species like stingrays, needle fish, and crabs that can be found in the springs. The return of native species would help reestablish balance and resilience in the ecosystem in both the lost springs and those further upstream like Silver Springs. “Silver Springs won’t recover until Kirkpatrick dam is removed because migrants can’t make their way [there],” Knight says.

St John's River
“Restoring the Ocklawaha is bigger than the Ocklawaha — it would help restore the entire St. Johns River,” says Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper. Photo by Natalie Maynor.

The benefits of restoration are amplified in a warming world. “An increased flow of 150 million gallons of water a day gets back into the St. Johns when Rodman is drawn down,” Rinaman says. If the dam were removed, she says, the increased flow would help fend off saltwater intrusion due to dredging and sea level rise.

So, with all these benefits that come with removal, why does the dam still remain?

“Groups have been trying to remove the dam for more than 50 years,” Rinaman explains. “The science is clear: Federal and state data clearly make the case for dam removal. It stays because of politics. It became a bass destination for Putnam County.”

“There is a save Rodman contingent,” Rinaman adds. “If you grew up fishing here with your grandad, you would want to save it too. But they haven’t looked at the bigger picture. A free-flowing Ocklawaha provides more fishing opportunities and greater economics than the dam.”

She points to the Putnam County town of Palatka, which sits on the St. Johns River, as an example of what a free-flowing river can mean for a community. “They are truly revitalizing their downtown based on the riverfront and reconnection to the St. Johns. The community is benefiting from ecotourism for the first time. Ecotourism would increase with a free-flowing [Ocklawaha] river.”

Over the years, removal of the dam has been politically popular at both the state and federal level. Back in the late 1970s, federal and state agencies recommended removing it, gaining the support of both President Jimmy Carter and Florida Governor Reubin Askew. The Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and the US Forest Service both expressed support for drawing down the reservoir in the 1970s. Since Governor Askew, a long list of governors has supported restoration of the river as well. But efforts have never quite gotten off the ground — so far, the bass fishing industry, often backed by state legislators and local politicians, has managed to quash removal efforts. That could be due to its economic influence: Current figures are hard to find, but a 1998 study estimated that recreational fishing contributed $41 million to the Putnam County annually, about a third of that attributed to fishing at the Rodman Reservoir.

“All regulatory agencies want the Kirkpatrick Dam out,” Knight says. “The [local] politicians just don’t have the guts to remove it. Status quo and political inertia keep it in place. It will just take a leader.”

I RETURNED TO the reservoir again in March, after the gates to the dam had been closed once again and the pool was nearly full. I thought about the majestic animals who couldn’t make it upriver past the reestablished barrier. The silver blue mullet, such graceful swimmers who warily navigate in unified schools with just flicks of their pectoral fins; the gentle manatees, who rest in the relative warmth of the springs; the sleek stingrays burrowed into the sandy bottoms of springs so that just their eyes can be seen. And I thought about the springs, hidden again, flooded under 20 feet of dark water, re-choked with sediment and detritus. There was no evidence of them. The flat, bland surface of the artificial lake had erased their existence.

As I stood on the crest of a pointless dam that continues to do ecological harm, I couldn’t help but wonder, Will we see the springs again?

Knight, of the Florida Springs Institute, is confident we will. “I am sure the dam will be removed — eventually. I cannot predict when but the current team fighting for the dam removal is well organized, passionate, and [has] truth and the public’s best interests on their side,” he says.

Tolbert agrees. “The restoration of the Ocklawaha is inevitable,” she says. “The dam will be breached … [and] the river will be restored, at least in part. I know it!”

For my part, I’ll be waiting for the springs’ reemergence in a few more years, inspired by the vision of what can be and the people fighting for that future. And I’ll be anticipating the lost springs’ ultimate resurrection, when the last drawdown is for good.

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