Lost Springs of the Ocklawaha River

Margaret Ross Tolbert. Photo, Alexander Diaz.

“What do you mean by drawdown?” I’m talking with Neil Armingeon, then St. Johns Riverkeeper. Spring of 2012.

“The Rodman,” the voice crackles over the mobile phone.” They’re letting some of the water out of the pool to kill the vegetation. You can see the Ocklawaha fall back in its original run.”

I remember the bewildering conversation. “You’re kidding. I thought the river was gone.”

“Nope,” Neil says. “It’s there. We’re going on a boat ride to see it.”

I’d been on the Ocklawaha before, looked at the infamous Rodman Reservoir from the levee and driven the tall bridge across the remnant of the canal, but I had no idea about the drawdowns. Neil and I were invited by Karen Ahlers, a Putnam county resident who has championed Ocklawaha restoration, and Karen Chadwick, river guide and environmental activist, to take a boat ride. The resulting trip is something that neither of us will ever forget.

Kenwood boat ramp, where Neil and I met our guides, was a flurry of activity. “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.” Karen Ahlers motions toward the water. “The fish are congregated in a very little bit of water. It’s mandatory catch and release.”

We queued up with the anglers to launch. A few quick minutes found us in one of the most bizarre landscapes I’d ever seen. We were motoring in the original run of the Ocklawaha River. Thousands of stumps stood shoulder to shoulder along the river’s ghost. Proud sentinels drowned at their post. Too proud to give up their guard.

“They’re all the same height.” I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Karen Chadwick picks up a gaff and points it to the top of a stump. “That’s where the waterline is.”

That was when I first started understanding the problem.

“What’s the source of the river?” My question lands with Karen Ahlers.

Margaret Ross Tolbert. Photo, Alexander Diaz.

“The Green Swamp, to the east of Tampa in Central Florida. It drains through the Harris Chain of Lakes where waters from the ancient Lake Wales Ridge percolate into it.” Her eyes twinkle as she speaks of her beloved river. “Then, the river wiggles its way north and east to a point near Ocala. Just downriver, at its confluence with the Silver River, the Ocklawaha receives the clear cool water from Silver Springs, the crown jewel of Florida’s springs.”

Building a canal that connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean was an idea tossed around for centuries. More expedient and protected shipping routes connecting ports of New Orleans, Tampa and Jacksonville would bring considerable economic impact for the southeastern part of the United States. This dream neglected to consider the fragile Florida ecosystem that would be bisected, and the vivisection of the Florida Aquifer and groundwater passages that would occur. In the late 1960s, this dream was very nearly realized by the Cross Florida Barge Canal. Thousands of acres of ancient riverine forest were crushed. The river was rerouted through a series of locks and dams. The ill-conceived project was scrapped in the early 1970s as the environmental nightmare unfolded.

Margaret Ross Tolbert. Photo, Alexander Diaz.

“They hurt my river.” Tears well in Ahlers’s eyes. “But they didn’t kill her.”

“What do you mean?” Neil grabs her hand.

“You see her in the drawdown, she slips back into her path. Trying to stay alive.”

Aquatic vegetation continues to grow in the water held back by the Kirkpatrick Dam. The water lettuce and hydrilla pave the water’s surface and deplete oxygen. Every three or four years the gates are opened on the impoundment, allowing the water level to drop, resulting in the death of excessive aquatic vegetation. During these periods, the river falls back into its natural course, the water clears and we see a glimpse of the past.

“She’s still one of the most beautiful rivers in the world.” Karen Chadwick chimes in.

During that drawdown we all made several more excursions on the river. Captain Erika Ritter at Eureka took us upriver practically to Silver River. The water was almost transparent.  Clear in most places. Ribs of early twentieth century steamboats, turtles and fish could be seen easily. Knowing that the water would be sullied by impoundment was horrifying.

All of us who heard the voice of the Ocklawaha screaming to be free rallied to her cause.

Read MoreBy Jim Draper

Pick up a copy of Arbus Magazine for more content and photos. You can even flip through past issues online or on the go!

Share This Post On
Arbus Weekly Buzz

Subscribe for the Weekly Buzz from Arbus Magazine

Join our email list! It's your spot for cultural to-do's around Northeast Florida.

You have Successfully Subscribed!