Initial results from an online public survey about the future of the Kirkpatrick Dam, Rodman Reservoir and Ocklawaha River were announced on Tuesday, revealing that a majority of the 10,482 respondents favor breaching the dam and restoring a free-flowing river.
Led by the Free the Ocklawaha Coalition for Everyone, advocates hope that the survey results will help in their years-long effort to partially remove the dam and restore the Ocklawaha River and connecting bodies of water.
The St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) launched the month-long survey in September to collect feedback from community members and stakeholders on the Kirkpatrick Dam and Rodman Reservoir “to help inform future key decisions regarding the best path forward,” whether continued operation or an alternative restoration effort.
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Of over 10,000 responses, 86.5% favor restoration of the Ocklawaha
SJRWMD recently released 251 pages of raw responses, which the Florida Department of Environmental Protection plans to analyze.
In the meantime, Free the Ocklawaha and other advocates announced the results of a volunteer professional data analyst’s preliminary assessment during a public comment period at the district's governing board meeting on Tuesday.
“I watched the process happen,” SJRWMD's Chris Peterson said in a video recap from Free the Ocklawaha, calling it “an ample opportunity for fair feedback for all the stakeholders in the area and from the world."
“To get over 10,000 responses as to what we should do, it’s exciting that we were able to hear from so many people in a fair and very civil manner because it has been contentious in the past,” he said.
The survey asked respondents in what ways they use the dam and reservoir, what they would like to see happen, what supporting information they have, and what concerns they have if the desired outcome is not achieved.
Of the 9,793 individuals who answered what they would like to see happen with the Rodman Reservoir and Kirkpatrick Dam moving forward, 86.5% indicated they were in favor of breaching the dam and restoring a free-flowing Ocklawaha River.
Only 5.9% of respondents supported retaining the dam and reservoir, while the remainder did not express a clear position.
“I think the survey results are a reflection of us trying to bring people together because the results in Putnam and Marion were so encouraging,” Free the Ocklawaha Chair Margaret Spontak said on Wednesday. “We've got people talking about what this could look like and what could make it even better for users of all types from fisherman to paddlers to hikers, mountain bikers.”
A press release detailed that survey responses came from 66 of Florida’s 67 counties, and 1,327 responses, or 17.23%, came from stakeholders out of state.
Restoration would consider concerns and provide recreation infrastructure
In Marion County, whose northern edge borders the dam and reservoir, 75.3% of respondents favored restoration, and 15.6% favored maintaining the dam. In Putnam County, bordering Marion to the north, 63.6% favored restoration and 19.5% opposed.
Spontak says those who favor retaining the dam do so primarily for the fishing and recreation it provides, so they’ve made sure to incorporate these concerns into potential restoration plans.
Potential legislation would also have funding for priority recreation infrastructure for Marion and Putnam counties and an economic package for Putnam.
“When the river is restored, you'll have more banks, so you'll have 16 miles of banks, so that will create more spots for bank fishing, hiking, camping,” she said. “ We really want the recreation infrastructure to take into consideration both bank and shore fishermen.”
Spontak says there are many positive benefits of restoring the Ocklawaha, including providing better fish migration routes and suitable manatee habitats, improving water quality, restoring 7,500 acres of wetland forest and a wildlife corridor and recovering 20 springs drowned by the dam.
“The survey results show the public understands that this is a win-win-win proposal of restoration,” Chris Farrell, Northeast Florida policy associate for Audubon Florida, said at the meeting, according to Free the Ocklawaha's video. “It greatly improves our environment, recreation and economy along this great Florida riverway, so we’re excited about the future.”
Advocates are awaiting state funds for restoration
Among other steps, the partial restoration of the Ocklawaha would include removal of a portion of the earthen dam, restoration of Deep Creek and the Camp Branch channel and floodplain, closure of the Buckman Lock and partial filling of the spillway to bring the reservoir and the river to the same level.
The dam, which was completed in 1968, is “in a bad state of repair,” SJRWMD Chair Douglas Burnett said at the meeting, noting upgrades could cost $8.5 million to $12 million, but he challenged the board to look into it.
While the district oversees the permit for restoration and the FDEP would oversee the efforts, the Florida Legislature must first appropriate funds to move the project forward.
Spontak says many legislators were awaiting the survey results, so the current and future assessments may help finally spur the restoration.
"I feel like this is the year we're going to make this happen,” she said. “We're seeing a lot of people cross over, people talking to one another, which wasn't happening before. We've got support, I think non-partisan support.”
Contact reporter Danielle Johnson at email@example.com.