Sports

Matthew Dickerson: Floridians have good reasons to restore the Ocklawaha

The first alligator I saw in the wild was somewhat anticlimactic. I, my wife Deborah, and local conservationist Margaret Spontak were at Florida’s Silver Springs State Park on a tour of Silver River in one of the famous glass-bottomed boats. The gator, between six and seven feet long — too big to be called a mere “swamp puppy” but not yet big enough to really impress — was napping on the wooded bank with its business end facing away from us. That was OK. I figured I’d see plenty of gators and maybe even a crocodile two days later when I visited the Everglades. (As it turned out, I would later see so many alligators I lost count.) At Silver Springs I was enjoying the unique landscape, the numerous fish, and the abundant bird life. I was also holding slim hopes of spotting my first manatee.

As expected, with warm summer air having already arrived in Florida, the manatees were gone from the springs. But the day would not end in disappointment on the manatee front. Several miles and an hour later to the northwest on the larger Ocklawaha River we would by wild luck stumble upon a pod of half a dozen manatees in a more remote and much less touristy area. Margaret had brought us along some back dirt roads to that particular spot to show us a fishing access ramp and platform with no idea we’d see manatees. We hadn’t been there long watching three local kids fishing for bass, and trying to spot a gator that was hiding in the weeds, when we noticed the manatees a short distance downriver rolling around the water in what we later realized was the rather raucous act of mating — something many of our Floridian relatives and acquaintances have never had the good fortune to see.

MATTHEW DICKERSON

Florida’s historic Ocklawaha River has its headwaters in myriad springs along the western side of the Ocala National Forest and Ocala Wildlife Management Area. From its source in Lake Griffin, it flows 74 miles to its confluence in the St. Johns River, which then continues out to Florida’s east coast near Jacksonville. At one time, the Ocklawaha was a free-flowing river and home to many native species of diadromous fish such as tarpon and sturgeon, whose life cycles require or make use of both fresh and saltwater. Among its sources once reachable by fish and mammals migrating from the ocean are many of the famous springs of Florida, which pour out of the ground year-round at between 72 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit. 

I mention mammals as well as fish because one of the creatures that used to swim freely from the ocean up into the Ocklawaha system to its springs are Florida’s iconic West Indian manatees: large aquatic marine herbivores, sometimes known as “sea cows.” Although growing up to 13 feet long and 1,300 pounds, they are different from most marine mammals (such as whales and seals, which are known for the blubber) in that they have very low body fat. As a result of their low fat, and also a slow metabolism, they cannot tolerate cold water. They get hypothermic if they stay in water below about 68 degrees, and they die in water below 60. So in the winter when the rivers and coastal waters get cold, they seek out the warm springs. 

Now Vermonters thinking about little springs that feed our local rivers — even if you can imagine the water coming out of the ground at 72 degrees — may wonder how even a single 1,300-pound creature could fit into one of those springs, no less dozens to hundreds of “sea cows.” But the larger springs that feed the St. Johns River pour out 800 million gallons of water per day. And even in places where individual springs are smaller, there are so many of them close together that they quickly form sizeable rivers. This is why these springs, and access to them from the coast, are so vital to manatees as an overwintering area, as well as to many species of fish, to birds that depend on the fish, and to other wildlife.

Silver Springs is one of those places. The exact count and locations of the springs changes periodically since individual springs occasional collapse and then the water pressure underground erupts elsewhere to form a new one. But according to the St. Johns River Water Management District there are 30 of them. (Our glass bottom boat tour brought us over five or six.) The output of these springs totals about 550 million gallons per day of water, which is enough to form an entire river. 

Continuing down into the Ocklawaha and from there to the St. Johns, the water coming out of Silver Springs ought to flow freely to the ocean. But it does not. Although studies between 1826 and 1911 all suggested that a cross-Florida barge canal was a bad idea — economically as well as ecologically — the promise of saving money by making an easier trade route from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico was too tempting for some to pass up. (See the “History of the Cross Florida Greenway” published by Florida State Parks and available at www.floridastateparks.org/learn/history-cross-florida-greenway.) After years of starts and stops, ground-breaking began in 1964, and one of the major aspects of the project was building a large dam on the Ocklawaha River, forming Ocklawaha Lake. In place of the old river channel was a new straight canal and lock system connecting the lake back to the St. Johns River. 

Although the dam was built, the canal was never completed. The environmental costs including the impact of Florida’s important aquifer, and to rivers such as the Ocklawaha, along with the tremendous construction costs, far outweighed any benefit. But by the time the project was halted in 1971, the damage had been done: the Ocklawaha no longer flowed freely to the ocean. Though a few manatees each year manage to navigate through the locks and migrate up the Ocklawaha to their historic winter habitats such as Silver Springs, many die in the attempt and most just turn back. Of course the migration route of spawning fish was also blocked. 

Visiting the river and learning about it with Spontak was a wonderful experience. One of her lifelong goals has been to see Silver Springs and the Ocklawaha River once more connected to the St. Johns and the Atlantic Ocean as a free-flowing river, welcoming to folks who appreciate the outdoors in many ways, including fishing, picnicking, paddling, birdwatching and wildlife viewing. She is president of the Great Florida Riverway Trust and also helped found the Reunite the Rivers coalition involving more than 60 national, state, and local organizations. Though there are many variations on the dam removal and restoration plans with numerous stakeholders, she hopes to see that dream come to fulfillment in the 2025 legislative session. I am just hoping to return and see manatees in the springs again one day. 

I also wouldn’t mind fishing for some of the many species that call the river home.

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