10/09/2003

Buckman Lock will be closed temporarily

By Brad Buck
The Palatka Daily News


The Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Greenways and Trails announced late Wednesday it is temporarily closing Buckman Lock, effective immediately.
Following an underwater inspection to assess the condition of the manatee protection system at the lock, divers discovered that several manatee protection grates were damaged beyond use, DEP spokesman Mickey Thomason said. Damaged grates present a potential threat to the endangered West Indian manatee, he said.
The lock will be closed until new grates are installed, Thomason said. That should take several months because DEP must hire an engineer to redesign the grates, he said via cell phone late Wednesday.
"We think there was a problem with the engineering," Thomason said.
Installing manatee protection systems on the Buckman Lock poses "unique challenges," he said. For example, the elevation difference between the lock and the St. Johns River is 18 feet, as opposed to locks in South and Central Florida, where the elevation difference between lock and river is 2 to 3 feet at the most, Thomason said.
Boaters can still get to the Rodman Reservoir from Kenwood, Rodman Campground, Orange Springs and Eureka boat ramps, he said.
It was almost a year ago to the day, Oct. 10, 2002, that Buckman Lock reopened to water traffic after being closed for two years while manatee protection devices were installed and reinstalled.
Ed Taylor, president of Save Rodman Reservoir Inc., and a fishing tournament organizer, said that today he plans to call those who decided to temporary close the Buckman Lock. He said he also plans to call state Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, to see what he can do to help resolve the situation.
"This is absolutely news to me," Taylor said when reached by phone at home Wednesday night. "God, I had no idea there was anything wrong with it. We spent $600,000 on it, and if it's not working, it's a waste of $600,000."
If the grates are replaced fairly quickly, fishing tournaments should not be disrupted, Taylor and Thomason said.
The lock is used by fishermen and boaters and provides a water route from the St. Johns River to Rodman Reservoir and back. While the lock was closed between 2000 and 2002, boaters trailed their boats to the Rodman area.
Before the lock reopened, Taylor said that the closing hurt tournaments, fishing guides and recreational boaters. Several times, the locks were opened during the two years for major fishing tournaments.
In April 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection took Buckman Lock out of operation.
The locks had been cited for causing an undetermined number of manatee deaths, according to federal fish and wildlife officials. The Florida Legislature approved $600,000 to install manatee protection devices.
Protective grating and audio sensor systems were installed at both the inlet and outlet to the lock. Several environmental groups raised concerns over manatees being caught in the gate openings and getting maimed or killed.
Large, aquatic mammals, manatees are protected under federal and state laws.