Nov. 5, 2021
Contact: Margaret Spontak, Chair, Free the Ocklawaha River Coalition for Everyone

FDE Lawsuit Has No Direct Impact on Ocklawaha River Coalition Progress 

What does the recent court opinion on the Florida Defenders of the Environment lawsuit mean for Ocklawaha River restoration efforts? 

Simple answer:  The court’s ruling has no direct impact on the strategy that Free the Ocklawaha River Coalition for Everyone (FORCE) is executing. The coalition’s focus has been to advocate for legislative and/or governor action for the funding and execution of partial restoration of the Ocklawaha River. The strategy includes aggressive communication, solid science, and strategic advocacy work with key leaders throughout Florida and beyond.

However, it is important to understand though that the court’s decision was made based on a procedural matter and not the environmental or economic merits of partial restoration of the Ocklawaha River. The court did give Florida Defenders of the Environment the ability to amend or add to its complaint and further pursue their claims. FDE is considering further action.

Detailed Explanation: 

FORCE has always been focused on getting the State of Florida, through its agencies, DEP and SJRWD, to move forward with the State's long stated plan of implementing the partial restoration of the Ocklawaha River, approved by the Governor and Cabinet in the 1990's.

Florida Defenders of the Environment, a member of FORCE, has advocated for the State to do that for many decades. In addition to that advocacy position, FDE also elected to pursue an additional route to achieve the goal, to try to get the US Forest Service to bring an enforcement action against the State of Florida for Florida's illegal use of US Forest lands flooded by the reservoir. FORCE did not participate in that federal litigation.

The court’s opinion from the 11th Circuit on FDE's case recognized the long history of the Cross Florida Barge Canal project and the damage done by the construction of portions of that project before the project was deauthorized. The 11th Circuit also recognized that it has long been the stated position of Florida that it intends to partially restore the river as described in the 2001 Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the US Forest Service.  The 11th Circuit also recognized that Florida is occupying US Forest Service lands (flooded by the reservoir) in violation of Federal Law. However, the court ruled as a procedural matter, that the Court is without authority to force the US Forest Service to bring an enforcement action, because that sort of decision is left to the discretion of the agency to weigh against other violations, the agency's priorities, and the agency's manpower to litigate matters throughout its jurisdiction.

The US Forest Service, up until this point, has not prioritized bringing this enforcement action. The Court could not substitute its judgment for the judgment of the agency on that matter, and so dismissed the appeal, but did give FDE the opportunity to amend its complaint if it wished to do so.

It could be that under the new federal administration, the US Forest Service might consider the Rodman Dam a higher priority and choose to bring an enforcement action against Florida in the future.  It may be that the dam safety issues being raised, might elevate this enforcement action in the eyes of the US Forest Service.

But whether the US Forest Service brings an enforcement action against Florida or not, does not impact the coalition’s efforts to reconnect the Great Florida Riverway – the Ocklawaha and St. Johns rivers and Silvers Springs. Advocacy to the Governor, FDEP, state legislators, congressional leaders, local government officials and other key leaders is full speed ahead with an eye towards the 2022 legislative session.