Ocklawaha River Restoration

U.S. Forest Service

Issue: In partnership with the State of Florida, and with the support of political and agency leadership, the Forest Service continues to pursue restoration of the Ocklawaha River. The Forest Service has an interest in seeing the surrounding bottomland hardwood ecosystem restored, particularly those Ocala National Forest lands submerged under the reservoir.

The State has not had a permit authorizing occupancy of National Forest lands impacted by Lake Ocklawaha and Kirkpatrick Dam since July 2002. Attempting to renew the special use permit, the Forest Service prepared an Environmental Impact Statement and signed the Record of Decision in January 2002. The Record of Decision’s proposed action was partial restoration (leaving structures in place but returning the river to a free flowing state) of the Ocklawaha River.

Subsequently, a special use permit was offered to the State to allow occupancy until restoration of the river was accomplished as requested in the State’s application (May 2002). The special use authorization was returned unsigned to the Forest Supervisor. The state indicated that they were unable to ensure funding to complete the restoration on the timeframe specified in the EIS. A new permit was sent in 2010 to Florida Department of Environmental Protection for their signature and the forest never received a formal response. The new proposed permit would give them the flexibility to set the restoration timeline as funding is available.

Cultural resources have been directly impacted by elevated water levels causing erosion and indirectly impacted by exposing resources to looting. A contract has been issued to conduct a survey of the affected Forest Service land this winter during the next scheduled drawdown to assess impacts to significant cultural resources and identify areas of concern.

Background: In an effort to promote navigation and the transport of products to coastal markets, Congress authorized the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal in 1942. Originally designed as a ship canal running from Yankeetown on the Gulf Coast to Palatka on the St. Johns River, the project included impounding the water of the Ocklawaha River. The construction of the barge canal began in 1964 and the Kirkpatrick Dam (then named Rodman Dam) on the Ocklawaha River was completed in 1968. The resulting impoundment flooded 9,600 acres with approximately 600 acres of National Forest lands flooded.

The project was halted in 1971 following a temporary federal court injunction. The project was officially deauthorized in 1991 (PL 101-640), and all interest held by the Secretary of Army in structures and lands were transferred to the State of Florida.

The Forest received a notice of intent to sue on February 21, 2011 from EarthJustice for violations of the Endangered Species Act. As a result, the forest initiated a field trip with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to tour the man-made Lake Ocklawaha and the lock structures. Prior to this field trip, neither the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nor the Forest Service was aware that the locks were being operated routinely and manatees were routinely and safely traversing the lock system to go to and from the St. Johns River and Lake Ocklawaha. No manatees have been killed or injured by the lock operation in nearly ten years. Although it appears that manatee safeguards in place are effective, the agencies still have some questions regarding manatee habits related to the lock structures. The Forest Service then agreed to re-initiate consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well and the National Marine Fisheries Service to address any issues to Federally-listed species regarding the Record of Decision for the Final Environmental Impact Statement for Occupancy and Use of the National Forest Land and Ocklawaha River Restoration, National Forests in Florida, Ocala National Forest, Marion and Lake Counties.

Key Points:

  • The Forest Service has long supported restoration of the Ocklawaha River and is pursing that goal in partnership with the State of Florida.
  • The Forest’s long-term objective is to restore the natural, bottomland hardwood ecosystem on the submerged National Forest lands.
  • The short-term goal is ensure water levels are retained at levels that do not further impact the National Forest lands and to get the State under special use permit for occupancy of the National Forest lands impacted by Rodman Reservoir and Kirkpatrick Dam.
  • The Forest has re-initiated consultation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service related to endangered species.