Newsletter - December 2021


Providing warm-water habitat for wintering manatees that is safe, has available food sources, and the right temperature to avoid cold stress syndrome is key to manatee conservation. Restoring the Great Florida Riverway by breaching the Rodman/Kirkpatrick dam holds significant potential to provide manatees with access to this important type of habitat. As the US Fish and Wildlife Service stated in the agency’s response to the SJRWMD Rodman/Kirkpatrick Dam stakeholder survey: “Improving access for manatees to natural warm water refugia such as the springs in the Silver and Ocklawaha rivers and the abundant submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) in the system would be a major positive contribution to creating a sustainable network of regional warm-water habitat necessary for the recovery and persistence of the Florida manatee into the foreseeable future. “

Constraints such as locks, dams, and fences prevent or restrict manatee access that might otherwise provide important warm-water habitat for manatees. Breaching the Kirkpatrick Dam, which is past its life expectancy, would provide hundreds of manatees with unimpeded access to warm water habitat in the Ocklawaha springs and Silver Springs. The Ocklawaha springs, now covered by the weight of the waters of the Rodman/Kirkpatrick Dam, and Silver Springs have been identified on the warm-water site list in Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation’s Florida Manatee Warm-Water Habitat Action Plan.

View The Great Florida Riverway on National Television: Wildlife Nation with Jeff Corwin.

In the “Mighty Manatee” episode of Wildlife Nation, conservation TV personality Jeff Corwin visits Silver Springs, the Rodman/Kirkpatrick Dam, and the Ocklawaha River to learn about the importance of restoring this river system for manatees. Watch the segment here:


1. Cold Winter Temperatures

Florida’s springs like Silver Springs and the currently drowned Ocklawaha’s springs are a constant 72 degree year-round. During recent chilly weather, temperatures in the reservoir dropped into the sixties. Temperatures under 68 degrees can subject manatees to cold stress syndrome, which can be fatal.

2. Herbicide Use

Invasive aquatic weed explosions in the reservoir require repetitive treatments to provide boat ramp and river access. Excessive herbicide exposure is not healthy for people or manatees. A study released in March 2021 found glyphosate in the majority of the studied manatees’ plasma, which may negatively impact their immune and renal systems.

3. Unreliable Access

Manatees currently use the Buckman Lock System to access the Rodman Reservoir and Ocklawaha River. The locks must be manually opened by a lock tender during lock hours, necessarily limiting manatee access.

4. Impeded Seagrass Growth

The dam blocks natural spring flow to the lower Ocklawaha and St. Johns Rivers – 150+ million gallons a day. This flow is needed to promote submerged aquatic plant growth – a key food and habitat source for manatees and fish.

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Restoring freshwater flow and avoiding dam failure and flooding = a winning resiliency project

Palatka Waterfront
Governor Ron DeSantis just announced Florida’s first ever Statewide Flooding Resilience Plan with an unprecedented $270 million for 76 projects to protect Florida’s coastal and inland communities. This is a big step in addressing infrastructure to protect citizens throughout Florida from the effects of sea level rise. Another project that could protect over 539 property owners with lands valued at over $57 million by providing downstream flood protection, reducing saltwater intrusion, and saving an economically valuable fishery is the restoration of the Ocklawaha River.

The Rodman/Kirkpatrick Dam is located on the Ocklawaha River upstream of its confluence with the St. Johns River. It is past its 50-year life expectancy and presents a danger to the town of Welaka and other nearby communities. Breaching this dam would uncover 20 drowned springs, restore a free-flowing Ocklawaha River, and improve the health and resiliency of four significant ecosystems: Silver Springs, the Ocklawaha River, the St. Johns River estuary, and the South Atlantic Bight. Few Florida restoration projects hold the promise for such far-reaching benefits. Casey Fitzgerald, former Assistant Director of Water Resources for St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) explains, “This resiliency project would provide the best economic and ecological return on investment than any other in the state. It is the most consequential restoration project remaining in the entire St. Johns River basin by far,” he added.

Danger to the St. Johns River Estuary

Many Floridians do not know that the last 100 miles of the St. Johns River from Welaka to the Atlantic Ocean is a productive estuary. The Ocklawaha River, the St Johns River’s largest tributary, historically helped maintain balance of salt and freshwater in the downstream estuary needed for healthy fish and wildlife habitat before the dam was in place.

Reduced freshwater flows from the damming of the Ocklawaha River, and increased saltwater intrusion have caused serious harm. The submerged aquatic vegetation is disappearing, cypress forest wetlands are stressed, and commercial and recreational fisheries are declining within the St. Johns River estuary from Welaka to Palatka to Jacksonville. Retired SJRWMD scientist John Hendrickson shares, “Restoring the natural flow to the St. Johns River would enhance water quality and restore habitat of the Lower St. Johns River by augmenting low flow, increasing dissolved oxygen, and providing a more balanced nutrient supply.”

Coastal Conservation Assoc. Educates Leaders About the Ocklawaha River

On December 11, Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) hosted Captain Rami Ashouri, Margaret Spontak, Free the Ocklawaha River Coalition, and Steve Miller, Save the Rodman Reservoir for an education session. The purpose of the workshop was to provide CCA board and members of their government relations committee and its habitat and water quality sub-committees the opportunity to learn more about both sides of this very important issue.

Spontak opened by explaining how the goals of CCA align with the work the coalition is doing, work to support a free-flowing Ocklawaha River, reconnecting the St. Johns and Ocklawaha Rivers and Silver Springs. She said, “The three priorities that we have in common include enhancing coastal and estuarine water quality, improving fish habitat, and promoting fishing access to anglers.” She ended with sharing the coalition’s three-part legislative platform that includes restoration, recreation infrastructure, and an economic package for Putnam County.

Ashouri talked about the strong connection between restoration of the Ocklawaha and the health of the St. Johns River from Welaka to Jacksonville. He challenged the group by saying, "This is your issue, this issue is every bit as important as the net ban. While y'all are doing great work with fish hatcheries and tagging, it will all be for naught if they have no place to live and nothing to forage on."

The captain is so passionate about this topic and the St. Johns River, he and angler Evan Tucker have formed a non-profit organization, Cowford Conservation, to inform anglers and key leaders about the economic and environmental benefits of a healthy St. Johns River.
Free The Ocklawaha Coalition. For a list of our members click here .
Free the Ocklawaha
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