By Charlie Crist
Florida’s great outdoors are unlike anything else in the world. From manatees, to spoonbills, to bald cypress trees, there is truly no place else quite like it. And yet, much of the last 100 years has been marked by environmental devastation rather than environmental stewardship. From foolish attempts to drain the Everglades to pollution runoff that poisons our waterways, our state bears the scars of the mistakes of the past.
One such bad idea, the Cross Florida Barge Canal, was meant to expedite shipping between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico by slicing a 30-foot-deep canal through the heart of our beautiful Florida. More than double the length of the Panama Canal with a fraction of the economic benefit, the project was plagued by delays. It was a boondoggle for taxpayers and a death knell for the Ocklawaha River — a natural, spring-fed waterway that emptied in the St. Johns River.
Thanks to the vision and leadership of Marjorie Harris Carr, President Richard Nixon canceled the Depression-era project 51 years ago this month, leaving behind an open space known as the Cross Florida Greenway that eventually came to be named after Carr. Beloved by outdoor enthusiasts, the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway features over 100 miles of hiking, biking, camping and kayaking. The Greenway includes relics of the canal project, showcasing how a legacy of public works and intervention yielded to an era of appreciating the clean air, clean water and jobs that come from environmental stewardship.
While the Greenway represents a rebirth, North Florida still bears scars from the canal project. One such scar, the Rodman dam, prohibits free movement of marine mammals, dirties our water, chokes our springs and continually disrupts an entire ecosystem.
The dam and the resulting reservoir were built in 1968 and have imprisoned the Ocklawaha River ever since. Once-beautiful marshland is now plagued by invasive species and degraded water quality, smothering 20 freshwater springs. The aging dam threatens nearby homes while preventing fish and manatees from migrating to warmer waters during the winter. After a tragically deadly year for the Florida manatee, we should be doing all we can to protect our inimitable wildlife.
Recently, the St. Johns Water Management District, which is responsible for the reservoir, conducted a public survey to learn what residents would like to see done with the dam and reservoir. Over 85% of the more than 10,000 respondents supported breaching the dam and restoring the Ocklawaha River.
When I served as your governor, I was proud to be part of the long-standing, bipartisan effort to undo the harm done by this ill-conceived project. Some of those who also joined the fight were presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Florida governors Lawton Chilies, Buddy MacKay and Jeb Bush, U.S. Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, and many other Republicans and Democrats at the federal, state and local levels.
Unfortunately, the budget to finish the job on this and many other important environmental priorities was bled dry by the not-so-Great Recession. But now the state is flush with cash — thanks in part to the wisdom of Florida voters who passed the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative (Amendment 1) by a tremendous margin in 2014.
We are also benefiting from the federal funding I was proud to help secure in the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure law — to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. With many of the permits already in place, we can move quickly to restore the Ocklawaha River and deliver key environmental and recreational benefits.
Almost immediately, we would see an improvement in the health of river systems in Central and Northeast Florida, including the St. Johns River. The 20 lost springs would re-emerge, and fresh water flow would improve. Native fish would help control invasive species. Native aquatic vegetation would grow. Thousands of acres of marshland would be resurrected, and migratory fish could once again use the river. Manatees would also benefit from the unobstructed route and vital warm springs.
Restoration is also fiscally sound. The state no longer would waste money maintaining an old, out-of-date, non-power producing, hazardous dam. In my vision of a Florida for all, we would work to support those whose livelihoods currently depend on the reservoir. Just as the Marjorie Harris Carr Greenway attracts millions of visitors per year, Visit Florida should extol the restored Ocklawaha River, supporting the local tourism industry and creating new ecotourism jobs as well.
Leaders from both parties have supported restoring the Ocklawaha River. I am hoping Gov. Ron DeSantis will listen to the people and restore the Ocklawaha River. The public, the science and the economics all overwhelmingly support restoration. And if he doesn’t get it done, as your governor, I will.
Florida is our home. And we as Floridians care about our land and water that blesses us every day. It is long past time — free the Ocklawaha River!
Charlie Crist is a U.S. congressman from St. Petersburg running for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2022.
This op-ed first appeared in the Gainesville Sun. “The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.
Photo credit: Doug Engle Photography/ Provided by St. Johns Riverkeeper