The Ocklawaha River has played an important role in Jennifer Carr’s family for generations. From her grandmother Marjorie Harris Carr, who fought to protect the river, to her father, who remembers catfish that were as big as his leg. Jennifer describes her vision for the river as she takes on the mantle of her grandmother’s legacy as one of its protectors.
Editor’s Note: Dispatches from a Sinking State is a contributor series from The Marjorie featuring first-person accounts of the environmental changes Florida women are witnessing across the state. This essay was funded by the Society of Environmental Journalists.
Baby Boomers who visited Silver Springs in the 1950s or lived on the Ocklawaha River may recall the dense schools of 50 lb catfish swimming around. My dad tells stories about seeing catfish there as long as your leg. Back then, you could watch swarms of these huge catfish through the famous glass-bottom boats at Silver Springs.
Today tourists aboard the Silver Springs glass-bottom boats have an uninterrupted view of algae-coated movie props from the 1960s. There aren’t many big catfish.
Silver Springs is connected to the Silver River, which flows into the Ocklawaha River. The Ocklawaha travels north near the Ocala National Forest, connecting to the St. Johns River and finally flowing out to the Atlantic Ocean.
I grew up in North Florida, but not before the construction of the Rodman Dam, now called the Kirkpatrick Dam, led to the degradation of this three-river ecosystem.
The area has changed drastically since the installation of the Rodman Dam in 1968 for the Cross Florida Barge Canal project. Scientists at Silver Springs have documented a 92% decline in the number of fish there since the dam was built 50 years ago. Ever since then, the catfish have not been able to complete their journey to Silver Springs because they simply cannot get past the dam.
To make a long story short I use this joke: What did the fish say when it bumped into a brick wall? Dam!
For me, the Ocklawaha’s story is personal. The river has played an important role in my family’s life for decades. It started with my grandmother, Marjorie Harris Carr.
My grandmother reveled in the natural world from an early age. She was always fascinated by the flora and fauna around her and wanted to understand how ecosystems worked. As a scientist, she grew increasingly concerned about environmental devastation in the name of progress.
Marjorie is well-known for her pioneering efforts to stop the Cross Florida Barge Canal, a project by the Army Corps of Engineers to cut a canal system through the state of Florida. The idea was to provide a new shipping route that didn’t involve traveling around the entire peninsula — this new system of locks, dams and reservoirs would provide a short cut right through North Florida for ships to come from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico, and vice versa.
Marjorie learned about the Cross Florida Barge Canal in 1962. Although it was heralded an engineering and economic marvel, the canal worried Marjorie. There was a clear lack of research and understanding of the harm it would cause to the Floridian environment.
Together with other concerned scientists and citizens, Marjorie founded the Florida Defenders of the Environment to stop the canal. They generated a scientific assessment called the “Environmental Impact of the Cross Florida Barge Canal With Special Emphasis on the Ocklawaha River System,” which presented ample evidence showing how the completed canal would pose serious threats to the aquifer and the state’s waterways.
The researchers used it to petition for the canal’s cancelation, and, after years of hard work, they were successful: the barge canal was officially deauthorized in 1990. The former canal land was turned into the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, a 110-mile public park honoring my grandmother.
After decades of advocacy on behalf of the Ocklawaha, my grandmother passed away in 1997 without seeing the deconstruction of the dam, which still blocks the river to this day.
Recognizing the legacy of my grandmother and how I could contribute to the cause, I became the madam chair of FDE in 2019, during the organization’s 50th anniversary.
Though we celebrate the cancelation of the Cross Florida Barge Canal as a major conservation win, the natural flow of the Ocklawaha is still obstructed by the Rodman Reservoir, which is controlled by the Kirkpatrick Dam. The 15-mile-long reservoir covers about 9,500 acres south of Palatka. Fishermen visit the reservoir to fish for largemouth bass, bluegill and other freshwater species.
Every four years, the reservoir is managed with a drawdown, which reduces the water level from 20 feet to 12 feet. Drawdown somewhat mimics what restoration would look and feel like with a natural river environment.
It took an unbelievable amount of manpower and construction equipment to “build” the barge canal, including enormous vehicles called “Crusher-Crawlers.” Part bulldozer, part-amphibious tanks, “the Crusher” weighed 306 tons. During the land clearing and dredging, one drove right into Cannon Springs, crushing the forest into the earth. The remaining snags are visible in the background of this underwater picture of Cannon Springs. Scars on the landscape are still visible in satellite images. The stumps still float downriver, clogging the dam’s spillway.
Even though the Rodman Reservoir has been called a premier largemouth bass fishery, mass fish kills have occurred over the years. Constant herbicide applications have been used to kill back the overgrowth of floating aquatic plants that block the boat ramps.
Manatees from the St. Johns River, who once freely roamed this habitat, currently have to enter the Ocklawaha River through a lock system only to find useless, artificially flooded springs that are not springing. The few that are successfully locked through still have to travel further, skipping past the lost springs, which no longer provide the thermal refuge they should, before heading to Silver River.
This 217-mile system of intricate rivers, sensitive springs and diverse wildlife depend on a free-flowing waterway.
In addition to the ecological benefits, restoring the Ocklawaha will expand economic, recreational and job creation opportunities across the river system. Restoration will also stop the spending of millions in taxpayer money to maintain a dam that never served its original purpose, does not generate power, offer a cost-effective water supply, nor provide significant public benefits.
Whether they support keeping or breaching the dam, I have found that those who care about the Ocklawaha River and the St. Johns River often share similar environmental stewardship values.
After all these decades, it feels hopeless sometimes. You hear people say that the river will not be restored in their lifetimes. I look at my daughter Carmen and say, well, in her lifetime it will.
Sometimes I feel like we are up shit creek without a paddle here in Florida. But I feel like the restoration of the Ocklawaha River is the resiliency story that Florida needs.
Every day, more Floridians are realizing the economic and environmental benefits that would come from restoring the river.
In October 2020, Carmen and I caught a catfish below the dam, in the lower Ocklawaha. This gives me hope. The remaining catfish in the Ocklawaha River are right there waiting for us humans to reopen their passage upriver.
I look forward to the day when families can visit Silver Springs State Park and once again see schools of catfish peering back through those looking-glass boats.
Jennifer Carr grew up in Gainesville and developed her love of nature from many excursions to the Carr family farm in rural Micanopy, Florida where she learned of the environmental legacy of her grandparents, Marjorie and Archie Carr. Jenny is currently the Senior Teaching Lab Specialist at the University of Florida’s Entomology and Nematology Department and is an Education/Training Specialist in the UF Biosecurity Research and Extension lab, where she is super good at rearing stink bugs. She has served as president of the Florida Defenders of the Environment since 2019.
Thank you to the Society of Environmental Journalists for contributing support to The Marjorie’s Dispatches from a Sinking State series.
Photos and historical documents courtesy Jennifer Carr and State Archives of Florida.