Seeking common ground on the Ocklawaha River

Members of the Florida Kids Helping Kids worked on painting pallets that will be used for signage for the Marion County Fair Monday afternoon, October 22, 2018. The fair, which will be held at 7730 East County Road 25 in Belleview, FL. is a fundraiser for the organization. Last year they raised $60,000 after all expenses were paid. The fair runs from October 26th through November 4th. [Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner]2018

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Posted September 11, 2020 | By Margaret Hankinson Spontak, Guest Columnist

For decades, Save the Rodman anglers and conservation groups have exchanged barbs about breaching the Rodman/Kirkpatrick Dam to return the Ocklawaha River to a free-flowing river. Yet, as I was reading recent social media posts, it appeared to me that we share many similar goals.

I bet we all agree the water quality of these rivers needs to be improved. Who likes waterways clogged with invasive aquatic plants, excessive herbicide spraying, and several boat ramps constantly unusable? Who wants to see fish consumption advisories warning pregnant women and children to limit eating the fish near the dam? Wouldn’t you like to see the headwaters of Silver Springs full of those big catfish, mullet and striped bass that made it famous? And, who wants to see communities like Silver Springs and Palatka with bait shops closed, hotels in disrepair, empty storefronts and a challenging economic base?

We can probably all agree that these issues should be addressed.

If we worked together, we could do something positive for Putnam and Marion counties’ economies and improve the Ocklawaha, St. Johns and Silver rivers in the process. Imagine if we worked together to create a world-class blueway from the Harris Chain of Lakes to Silver Springs to the Ocklawaha to the St. Johns. If we continue this decades-long bickering, we lose opportunities to attract state, federal and private funds to restore our water and recreational resources.

Those dollars are being directed by the millions to the Everglades and the Indian River Lagoon because those communities came together with a unified vision. Those projects are certainly important, but I would suggest that we have a river system and greenway of national significance right here in North Florida. We just need our elected leaders to direct resources to this stimulus-ready project. 

Scientists tell us striped bass, American shad, channel and white catfish, shellfish and many other species would come back to the Ocklawaha and Silver Springs, migrating from the Atlantic, if they only had a free-flowing Ocklawaha. Sports fishing would improve, not decline. The scientists predict we could have 500-plus manatees wintering at Silver Springs State Park, bringing more tourists and reviving the blighted area near the park. Imagine swimming and manatees – managed properly, of course!

A consensus plan described in the state’s current Greenway Plan retains the current Rodman recreation site amenities and breaches the dam on one side. Twenty fresh-water springs that many residents enjoyed as children would be uncovered. These freed springs and less reservoir evaporation would provide millions of gallons of natural water flow each day to the St. Johns to support fish and shellfish nurseries in its 100-mile coastal estuary.

Think about a new bridge across the Rodman area with a manatee/wildlife viewing area and multi-use roadway for cars, bicycles and people connecting to recreational bike trails and the current Florida Trail. A water recreation concession at the Rodman Recreation Area could provide paddling, boating and standup paddle boarding. Imagine a Visitors’ Center and interpretive signage sharing decades of stories about the Ocklawaha River. Like the amenities along the Suwanee River Wilderness Trail, wildlife viewing areas, added dock fishing, historic markers and camping platforms could create assets for visitors and residents.

We are only limited by absence of shared leadership, a common vision and the fear of change. We need to come together with a vision bigger than just maintaining a 50-year old dam that is past its life expectancy and never served its intended purpose, and a declining fishery with fewer and fewer users. 

According to the state’s Greenway Plan, the dam will soon require millions in improvements. Why invest in this 50-year-old dam when, together, our communities can do something so much better with that money?

I love the Ocklawaha and Silver rivers and want to see Palatka and Silver Springs with vibrant economies. Let us come together to talk about a better approach that can really bring economic prosperity to our region during this challenging time.

Margaret Hankinson Spontak is chairwoman of the Free the Ocklawaha Coalition. For more information, see Free the

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