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Panel Hears Testimony on Project’s Future : Florida’s ‘Wicked Ditch’ Far From Dead

Associated Press

A state lawmaker once summed up the fight against the Cross Florida Barge Canal by saying: “The wicked ditch is dead.”

However, both opponents and supporters of a shipping lane across the state from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean know that although the canal may be terminally ill, it is hardly dead.

Congress has not eliminated the project from the federal government’s list of public works projects, although President Richard M. Nixon suspended work on it in 1971 when it was about one-third complete.

Recently, a standing-room-only crowd of about 250 persons jammed a meeting room at the St. Johns River Water Management District headquarters in Palatka, where a congressional subcommittee heard testimony on the project’s future.

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The panel is expected to vote on the measure in July.

Gov. Bob Graham and other state leaders, along with environmentalists, pushed for taking the project off the list of public works projects, while business and civic leaders urged continuation of the 110-mile canal.

“We do not want this canal. Period,” the governor said. “We have many, many needs--we need new schools, more teachers, roads, bridges, mass transit, water and sewer lines--but there is one thing we don’t need, and that’s the Cross Florida Barge Canal.”

Graham said the state Legislature, governor and Cabinet have asked repeatedly since 1972 that the project be killed.

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“Congressmen, how many times do we have to say no? How many ways are there to say no? Please, take no for an answer,” Graham told the subcommittee.

Florida Defenders of the Environment and the Sierra Club also supported discontinuing the project.

John Kaufmann, a University of Florida zoology professor and chairman of a Florida Defenders of the Environment Committee, said the waterway could damage endangered species such as the manatee, bald eagle and osprey.

On the other side was George Linville, chairman of the Cross Florida Barge Canal Assn.

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“The bottom line is that the canal ought to be built and it should be built as soon as it is possible,” Linville said.

U.S. Rep. Bill Chappell Jr., a Democrat from Daytona Beach Shores and longtime supporter of the project, said future generations should decide the issue.

Atmosphere ‘Not Conducive’

“The atmosphere is not conducive for completion now,” he said.

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Other supporters, such as U.S. Rep. Charles E. Bennett, a Democrat from Jacksonville, said no action on taking away authorization should be considered until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes a new economic study later this year.

A 1977 study by the corps showed that although the canal was a feasible project and the environmental impact was not severe, the economic benefits were marginal and the canal should not be built.

The idea of a canal across northern Florida has sparked imagination and controversy for more than 150 years.

As early as 1828, Congress authorized a study on building a canal across northern Florida to save about 600 miles of navigation around the peninsula.

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When President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a sea-level canal through the region in 1935, opponents warned that “south Florida will become a desert.”

Roosevelt pushed a telegraph key from the “little White House” in New York on Sept. 19, 1935, to set off a blast of dynamite in Florida and begin the canal.

During World War II, the waterway was seen as a means to move military cargoes without threat of Nazi submarines. When the war ended, the canal project lapsed into the first of many hibernations.

While campaigning for the presidency, Sen. John F. Kennedy pledged that the canal would be built if he occupied the White House. In 1962, President Kennedy authorized resumption of the project.

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President Lyndon B. Johnson traveled to Palatka on Feb. 17, 1964, and set off a dynamite blast to renew the digging.

Environmental Concerns

Seven years later, President Nixon may have signaled the beginning of the end when he suspended work on the waterway, citing environmental reasons. Nixon said it was time to “prevent a past mistake by causing permanent damage” to the Oklawaha River, which borders the Ocala National Forest.

The project, in limbo since then, was halted with about 25 miles of channel, three locks, three dams and four bridges completed at a cost of $76 million.

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The corps now spends about $1.5 million a year to maintain the finished sections, which run from east of Yankeetown into the Gulf of Mexico and from Palatka to near Orange Springs. The canal was to connect with the St. Johns River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville.

Florida’s Legislature has asked Congress to end the project. It was during one discussion in 1979 that state Rep. Frank Mann of Fort Myers declared: “The wicked ditch is dead.”

“I guess it was little premature--it makes me sick--but I suppose it was,” Mann, now a state senator running for governor, said recently.

Mann, a Democrat, said the “big business interests” that would profit from the waterway are responsible for keeping the project alive.

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“It’s the most exasperating issue I’ve dealt with in 11 years in Tallahassee,” he said. “If I knew where the heart was, I’d grab a wooden stake and drive it in myself.”


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