Environmentalists Defeat the Cross-Florida Barge Canal Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

President George H. W. Bush signed a bill that deauthorized the Cross-Florida Barge Canal after environmentalists showed the potential harmful effects that constructing the canal could have on Florida’s groundwater supplies.

Summary of Event

The idea of digging a canal across the Florida peninsula emerged at least as early as 1829. In that year, Brigadier General Simon Bernard Bernard, Simon of the U.S. Army presented to Congress the results of several surveys he had made of possible canal routes. Bernard’s survey followed a period of canal building in the United States in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 is an example of efforts to provide waterways to move goods cheaply and safely from farms to major centers of population. Environmental activism Cross-Florida Barge Canal[Cross Florida Barge Canal] Florida Defenders of the Environment Florida;Cross-Florida Barge Canal[Cross Florida Barge Canal] [kw]Environmentalists Defeat the Cross-Florida Barge Canal (Nov. 28, 1990) [kw]Cross-Florida Barge Canal, Environmentalists Defeat the (Nov. 28, 1990) [kw]Florida Barge Canal, Environmentalists Defeat the Cross- (Nov. 28, 1990) [kw]Barge Canal, Environmentalists Defeat the Cross-Florida (Nov. 28, 1990) [kw]Canal, Environmentalists Defeat the Cross-Florida Barge (Nov. 28, 1990) Environmental activism Cross-Florida Barge Canal[Cross Florida Barge Canal] Florida Defenders of the Environment Florida;Cross-Florida Barge Canal[Cross Florida Barge Canal] [g]North America;Nov. 28, 1990: Environmentalists Defeat the Cross-Florida Barge Canal[07930] [g]United States;Nov. 28, 1990: Environmentalists Defeat the Cross-Florida Barge Canal[07930] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov. 28, 1990: Environmentalists Defeat the Cross-Florida Barge Canal[07930] [c]Environmental issues;Nov. 28, 1990: Environmentalists Defeat the Cross-Florida Barge Canal[07930] Carr, Marjorie H. Roosevelt, Franklin D. Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;Cross-Florida Barge Canal[Cross Florida Barge Canal] Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;environmental policy

The rationale for building a canal across Florida was simple: Users of such a canal would avoid the risk and expense of sending ships and cargo on the hazardous journey through the Straits of Florida, past Key West, and up the Atlantic coast. Despite many subsequent surveys, however, nothing was done, perhaps because of the generally negative conclusions in the surveyors’ reports as to the value of a cross-Florida canal. The reports uniformly stressed the adverse characteristics of the peninsula’s underlying limestone, the high cost, and the merely local benefits to be realized. An 1853 report dismissed the canal idea and strongly recommended instead the immediate construction of a railroad across the peninsula. What was preserved from the several surveys was the canal route, which actually was partially completed, from the Withlacoochee River on the Gulf of Mexico eastward to the Oklawaha River near Ocala, then to the St. Johns River, and finally to the Atlantic Ocean.

The canal idea lay dormant for nearly a century, but many people in the Florida business community and in the U.S. Congress remained interested in such a canal. On January 25, 1932, under the provisions of the United States Rivers and Harbor Acts of 1927 and 1930, the chief of engineers (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordered another survey for a canal. On June 3, 1933, the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors, reporting the results of the survey, recommended the canal project as a public necessity that would be both economically sound and of real social value. To support the project, in May, 1933, the state of Florida had created the Ship Canal Authority. Ship Canal Authority Florida sought to have the canal constructed with federal funds under the new federal Public Works Administration Public Works Administration (PWA).

The PWA was one of a number of agencies created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his first term in office (1933-1937) to combat the effects of the Great Depression. Under the broad rubric of the National Industrial Recovery Act, Roosevelt created agencies and programs to put people to work on government projects. The Cross-Florida Barge Canal seemed a natural for the PWA. It would be mainly pick-and-shovel work, employing large numbers of workers, both skilled artisans and common laborers. Some of the rosy glow surrounding the proposed canal was dimmed in a later report issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, which concluded that a cost-benefit analysis could not support the project. Nevertheless, the canal plan survived.

On August 30, 1935, Roosevelt authorized a sea-level canal across Florida and allocated $5 million toward its construction. In a symbolic stroke, on September 19, 1935, using a telegraph key in the White House, Roosevelt set off a charge of dynamite planted near the city of Ocala to begin excavation for the canal. Approximately fourteen million cubic yards of rock and soil were removed in the first nine months of the project. In addition, office buildings, dormitories for the workers, workshops, and camp facilities were built. The money ran out, however, and in June, 1936, work on the canal stopped.

The canal project had too many friends for it to die. In 1937, a bill was introduced in Congress for the canal’s completion. At hearings before the Congressional Committee on Rivers and Harbors, the Board of Engineers testified that the canal should have a minimum depth of 35 feet and a minimum width of 400 feet to permit the passage of large, oceangoing vessels. Once again, however, the costs greatly outweighed the projected benefits. The chief of the Corps of Engineers recommended a change from plans for a sea-level canal to a canal with locks and revised cost estimates upward. The engineers dismissed fears about the effects of the canal on the groundwater of the state or the possibility of saltwater intrusion. (Florida was and is almost totally dependent on groundwater for its drinking water supplies.)

In 1939 congressional hearings, ship safety was stressed in comparing the proposed 197-mile canal to the 300- to 350-mile trip around the peninsula via Key West. One speaker testified that the canal route would be preferred during hurricanes, for example. These hearings also discussed the different kinds of cargo that might be carried through the canal. Petroleum was expected to constitute 77 percent of the annual volume. The goods would pass down the Mississippi River, along the northeast coast of the Gulf of Mexico, through the canal, and into the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville.

The sides were clearly drawn in the 1939 hearings. Supporters of the project included President Roosevelt; the U.S. Departments of Navy, War, and Commerce; the governors of a number of states that abutted the greater Mississippi River system; and numerous elected officials from Florida. Opponents of the canal included the Association of American Railroads, certain railroad workers’ organizations, the management of some oil companies, congressmen from southern Florida districts, the Miami Chamber of Commerce, and the Florida Water Conservation League. Perhaps the greatest support came from Roosevelt and the Navy Department, who saw the canal as of definite value in national defense. Such a waterway would safeguard the movements of shipborne troops as well as military supplies in wartime.

At the conclusion of each of the many congressional hearings, the Corps of Engineers reiterated its position that the canal was vital to the United States and should be completed. A disquieting note had been introduced, however, by Harry Slattery, Slattery, Harry acting secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Slattery believed that a sea-level canal cut through the Ocala limestone formation would drain the groundwater about forty feet below its natural level. The Senate Committee on Commerce responded that the only water supply of concern was that affecting agricultural crops.

The geopolitical climate of the world was changing, and with the approach of World War II, the canal project was moved to a back burner. The United States emerged from the Great Depression as millions of the unemployed went to work in a variety of industries. The nation, although not officially at war, became the “arsenal of democracy,” supplying military and humanitarian supplies to Great Britain and its allies.

Interest in the canal was revived briefly in 1942 when German submarines sank oil tankers that burned within sight of Florida’s eastern beaches. In May, at a hearing before the House Committee on Rivers and Harbors, Congressman Joseph J. Mansfield Mansfield, Joseph J. of Texas pointed out that even a twelve-foot-wide channel across Florida would be enough to supply the petroleum requirements of the Atlantic seaboard. Construction of the canal was again authorized in 1942, but no further work was done. In 1958, the Army Corps of Engineers calculated that each dollar spent in construction would return one cent in benefits.

The dormant canal project was revived during the 1960 presidential campaign. Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy Kennedy, John F. was told that the project was popular in Florida and that he could win the state’s voters by endorsing it. He took the advice, and, following his inauguration, the U.S. Congress began hearings to authorize the canal’s completion. In 1963, Congress voted a token $1 million to restart the canal project. In February, 1964, the Army Corps of Engineers, this time using huge drag-line scoops, began the work. To justify the canal, the Corps of Engineers recalculated costs and benefits to show a profit of seventeen cents for each dollar of cost.

While local business interests in Florida cheered, a growing grassroots campaign of environmentally minded citizens began to look closely at the entire canal project. One source of alarm was what has been termed “the rape of the Oklawaha.” The Oklawaha River flows placidly east of Ocala and is supplied in part by water from Silver Springs. The river and its subtropical ecosystem support organisms that are biologically and ecologically unique, an archetypal example of ideal biodiversity. Nearly half the Oklawaha would be obliterated for the canal.

A group of citizens who were opposed to the canal and its environmental impacts organized in the nearby university town of Gainesville. They were appalled at the cavalier attitude of the U.S. government in disregarding the ecology of the area around the canal route. Organizing under the name Florida Defenders of the Environment (FDE) and led by Marjorie H. Carr, they included University of Florida professors from a number of disciplines. They affiliated themselves with the Environmental Defense Fund Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a national organization. Members of the FDE were particularly concerned that the government had not prepared an environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (1969) (NEPA).

As prescribed by NEPA, environmental impact statements are to describe a project, why it is needed, what its environmental impacts might be, and what could be done to minimize those impacts. In the absence of an impact statement from the Army Corps of Engineers concerning the canal, the FDE, in March, 1970, published its own statement that specifically emphasized the regional ecosystem of the Oklawaha River. The 115-page document included input from university geologists, hydrologists, ecologists, land-use planners, and economists. The report concluded that the Cross-Florida Barge Canal would be an environmental disaster of major proportions. At greatest risk from the proposed waterway was the groundwater.

The efforts of the FDE seemed to serve as a rallying point for anticanal voices. Articles opposing the project appeared in such diverse popular periodicals as Reader’s Digest, Audubon, and American Forests. Newspapers in Florida published editorials blasting the canal, and private citizens badgered their congressional delegations to stop the work.

Outcries against the canal reached the presidential administration of Richard M. Nixon. In his memoirs, John Ehrlichman, Ehrlichman, John who served as Nixon’s chief domestic adviser, curiously takes credit for the negative background study on the canal. He states that his staff study found only environmental damage and no positive benefits, and that he ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to stop work on the canal.

Nixon was outraged at Ehrlichman’s action because it displeased Florida business interests. Nixon undoubtedly saw the handwriting on the wall, however, and on January 19, 1971, he issued the order to stop work on the canal. His reason, he wrote, was “to prevent potentially serious environmental damages.” He added that the Council on Environmental Quality Council on Environmental Quality, U.S. had recommended an end to the project. Nixon did not mention, however, that only four days earlier, the EDF and FDE had obtained a preliminary injunction in the federal district court in the District of Columbia to force the Army Corps of Engineers to halt the project. In his ruling, the judge noted that the Corps of Engineers had not complied with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The canal still was not dead, however; special interests in Florida and sympathetic politicians in Florida’s executive and legislative branches, as well as many in Washington, kept the project alive. About one-third of the waterway had been constructed, at a cost of $50 million. Some saw continuation of the work as throwing good money after bad, whereas others saw cessation of the project as a waste of monies already expended. The Florida cabinet supported the Canal Authority of Florida by appropriating $1.13 million for it, plus $38,300 for the Cross-Florida Canal District. In addition, President Gerald R. Ford Ford, Gerald R. submitted a budget that included $825,000 for further studies on the canal and $593,000 for maintenance of the completed portions.

In the mid-1970’s, major Florida newspapers and television stations published editorials against the canal while the EDF, the FDE, and other environmentalist groups continued their efforts. In a startling turnaround, in 1977 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Florida cabinet recommended that the canal project be terminated. What followed was classic political maneuvering. In 1979, legislation was filed in the U.S. Congress to deauthorize the canal, but it failed. In 1986, Congress passed a deauthorization bill, but Florida failed to pass the necessary implementing laws. Finally, after tremendous public outcry against the canal, on May 31, 1990, the Florida legislature passed a bill to deauthorize the canal. The bill was signed into law the following June 18 by Governor Robert Martinez. Martinez, Robert President George H. W. Bush signed corresponding federal legislation on November 28, 1990.


The controversy over the building of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal grew along with the American environmental movement. Eventually, the raised voices of citizens’ groups—including the old-line Audubon Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Florida Defenders of the Environment—and a host of concerned individuals succeeded in convincing local and national governments and the courts of the dangers the canal project posed to the environment. The defeat of the canal stands as a high point in the environmental conservation movement in the United States.

The 1990 death of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal project left supporters on both sides of the issue wondering what to do. More than seventy-seven thousand acres of land in six counties had been acquired for the canal, the right-of-way, and support structures. Some land had been bought outright, some was donated, and some was obtained by eminent domain. A few people wanted their land back. Some counties wanted recompense for the taxes they had lost while the land was in federal ownership. One small city, Dunnellon, about twenty miles from the canal’s western end, had lost 18 percent of its land to the canal and wanted it back for a wastewater spray field but could not afford to pay for it. Some developers hungrily eyed choice parcels with water access.

The federal government established a system of buyback under which the state of Florida would have the first opportunity to buy canal land. Any of the land it did not choose to purchase would then be offered to the six counties. The original landowners could choose from what was left, and finally any residue would be sold to the highest bidders.

The state responded with a plan to establish a cross-state park, the Cross Florida Greenbelt State Recreation and Conservation Area. The park would be at least three hundred yards wide, wider where possible. It would include nature trails, campsites, fishing, boating and swimming access, and some supporting amenities. To ensure reasonable development and management of the greenbelt, the state requested a management plan from University of Florida researchers. In addition, a canal lands advisory committee was appointed; its members included FDE founder Marjorie Carr. The successfully reclaimed area was later renamed the Cross Florida Greenway, and in 1998, in honor of Carr’s fight to stop the canal, it became the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway. Environmental activism Cross-Florida Barge Canal[Cross Florida Barge Canal] Florida Defenders of the Environment Florida;Cross-Florida Barge Canal[Cross Florida Barge Canal]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, Paul. “Oklawaha: The Sweetest Water-Lane in the World.” In The Pursuit of Wilderness. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971. Lyrical essay describes the natural subtropical beauty of the Oklawaha River before it was engineered for the Cross-Florida Barge Canal. Includes excellent black-and-white photographs of the natural river ecosystem, a map of the canal route and environs, and a photograph of one completed section of the canal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrlichman, John. Witness to Power: The Nixon Years. New York: Pocket Books, 1982. Provides a revealing insightful look at political maneuvering. Briefly describes how the Florida business community sought Nixon’s help to push through the Cross-Florida Barge Canal project.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flippen, J. Brooks. Nixon and the Environment. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. Examines Nixon’s reasons for the decisions he made concerning the environment during his presidency. Includes discussion of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Florida Defenders of the Environment. Environmental Impact of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal with Special Emphasis on the Oklawaha Regional Ecosystem. Gainesville: Author, 1970. Collection of chapters by University of Florida faculty members examines pertinent ecological and cultural aspects of the canal environs and how they could be greatly damaged by the canal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Irby, Lee. “A Passion for Wild Things: Marjorie Harris Carr and the Fight to Free a River.” In Making Waves: Female Activists in Twentieth-Century Florida, edited by Jack E. Davis and Kari Frederickson. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003. Details Carr’s role in the fight against the Cross-Florida Barge Canal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walsh, John. “Florida: Nixon Halts Canal Project, Cites Environment.” Science 29 (January, 1971): 357. Detail-packed short article sketches the background of the canal project and the legal actions taken by citizen groups to stop the canal. Also describes some of the justifications used by engineers to support the project.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wright, Albert Hazen. The Atlantic-Gulf or Florida Ship Canal. Ithaca, N.Y.: A. H. Wright, 1937. Includes several historical synopses and the 1829 site survey for a canal route made by General Bernard. Several of the old surveys approximate the route chosen in the 1930’s.

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Categories: History