The environmental law firm Earthjustice today announced that it has filed a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue the U.S. Forest Service to protect imperiled manatees and shortnose sturgeon, two species the firm alleges are blocked from migrating in the Ocklawaha River because of a dam operated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Earthjustice filed the notice on behalf of the Florida Defenders of the Environment and the Florida Wildlife Federation, groups that have long lobbied for the removal of the 44-year-old dam to restore the flows of the spring-fed Ocklawaha River.
The Kirkpatrick dam was built as part of a federal project called the Cross Florida Barge Canal, which intended to connect the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The project was halted by President Richard Nixon in 1971, but the dam has remained in place, much to the chagrin of environmentalists who argue that it is “impounding the Ocklawaha and flooding 9,000 acres of floodplain forest, including approximately 600 acres in the Ocala National Forest.”
The move to restore the Ocklawaha River to its natural state is nothing new. The Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and the U.S. Forest Service have both expressed support for draining the dam and establishing the Ocklawaha as a National or State Wild and Scenic River. In 2003, then-Gov. Jeb Bush also supported efforts to restore the river by breaching the dam. In fact, according to Earthjustice, “every Florida governor since Governor Askew has favored restoration” of the Ocklawaha.
But despite the support for restoration, many proposals have stalled due to opposition from the organized bass fishing community. The dam controls the water levels of the nearby Rodman reservoir, a bass hotspot.
“It is time to get rid of this outdated and destructive dam once and for all,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. “In this day and age, why is the Florida Department of Environmental Protection artificially blocking a waterway and harming the rare species that live in it? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Today’s legal action is a claim under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and it focuses on the fate of manatees and an ancient fish called the shortnose sturgeon.
Because the operation of the dam impacts endangered species, state and federal officials were required in 2001 to do a biological assessment under the Endangered Species Act as part of the permitting process.
The Earthjustice suit challenges findings that suggest that there are no threats to the continued existence of the shortnose sturgeon, which is listed as an endangered species, or the manatee in the Ocklawaha. Both of those conclusions, say Earthjustice reps, were made based on dam removal and restoration, which the state Department of Environmental Protection never completed.
In a press release, Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said that his group remains optimistic that the Forest Service will “step in and do the right thing to protect species and restore” the river.
“Forty years after the Barge Canal was declared a failed boondoggle and halted, removal of the dam will finally help restore biological and economic vitality to this historic Florida river,” said Stephen Robitaille, president of the board for the Florida Defenders of the Environment.