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As rain falls, muck debate intensifies

Cleaning the beds of the Tsala Apopka lakes would have been a much easier task when they were dry, officials admit.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002


Returning after years of bitter drought, the water filling the Tsala Apopka lake chain has brought with it a sense of rejuvenation. But the sight makes Paul Pilny cringe on the morning drive to work from his Inverness home.

"I kick myself each time," laments Pilny, a federal soil scientist. "We had a golden opportunity, and we blew it."

To Pilny and others who live, fish or play amid the lake chain -- a series of large pools and wetlands west of the Withlacoochee River -- the drought presented a solution to a nagging problem: muck.

With lake beds exposed, bulldozers and other heavy equipment could have stripped away layers of dense organic material, leaving sandy bottoms that fish favor, freeing boat props and improving water visibility.

"We could have really given this lake a shot in the arm," Pilny said. He envisions something along the lines of the state-funded $26-million restoration project under way at nearby Lake Panasoffkee.

The amount of money spent cleaning up muck in Citrus County is less than $2-million, and whatever projects were being considered have been shelved because of rising lake levels.

Dredging can occur when the water levels are up, but the process, usually involving a barge and large pumps, can be more expensive and complex. And permits are more difficult to obtain.

Critics point at county government and state agencies, saying they did not act with enough urgency or foresight. Some argue that a more concerted lobbying effort to obtain funding from the Legislature was in order.

"The window was here for a good time," said L.C. Alexander, an Inverness resident and longtime environmental activist. "We missed the boat badly."

Some government officials concede that the time may have been ideal. But they defend the work that was done and suggest that, despite the alarm expressed by some, the situation is not that dire, that the quality of Tsala Apopka is still enviable. At the very least, they say, the issue deserves further study before millions of dollars are spent.

"I hate to say the opportunity was lost," said Mark Edwards, director of aquatic services for Citrus County. "We accomplished a lot."

During the past two years, he said, the county removed 120,000 cubic yards of muck from Tsala Apopka at a cost of $1.2-million. The work targeted navigation trails.

Although the lake system is controlled by the state, Edwards emphasized, the county put considerable local resources into restoration.

The county also partnered with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on two pilot projects. The first was in August 2001 and resulted in the clearing of more than 20 acres near the Eden Drive boat ramp, south of Inverness. The second project involved 8 acres in the Lake Park section of the Hernando Pool.

A third pilot did not go as well. It targeted a cove at the north end of the Hernando Pool, where muck was more than a foot thick. The plan at first was to deposit the muck on a nearby island, saving the expense of trucking it away.

Residents complained, however, and officials looked for an off-site dumping area, searching fruitlessly until about a month ago. By then, lake levels had risen and the project was scrapped.

Neither the county nor the fish commission has permits to dredge while the water is up. That means Citrus County must sit on its permit to remove 2.6-million cubic yards, more than 131,600 truckloads, of muck from the lake chain. The permit is good for 10 years.

Is removing muck what Mother Nature would do?

Before more money is spent on the lake system, the areas cleared in the pilots must be studied, said John Benton, a fish commission biologist who worked on the projects.

They areas have shown signs of success, but the real test will be whether bass, bluegill and redear sunfish return to spawn, he said, adding that research needs to be done on what type of vegetation grows back in the area.

Calls for wholesale removal of organic sediment may be misguided, Benton said.

"I know there is a lot of muck or marsh people want to get rid of, but a lot of that has been there for a long time," he said.

"Our mission is not to create an open water where there wasn't before. The lake system may not need it to function."

Bruce Wirth, the resource management director for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, holds a similar view.

"Are we trying to make something out of a system that was never meant to be?" he said. "Are we looking at lakes that people from Michigan are used to -- deep and clear?"

Unlike those lakes, which were carved by glaciers, the Florida lakes were typically created after the earth collapsed into the aquifer, Wirth said. The water is naturally nutrient rich, and over time, organic material will build up and fill in the lake.

The looming questions could be answered in a $3-million study of the Withlacoochee River Basin set to start this year.

Co-funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the study will examine the basin's water supply, flood control needs and restoration needs.

Once the science is in place -- the completion date is January 2006 -- county officials hope to secure state and federal funding to restore the lake chain.

The debate over the need and benefit of muck removal is preceded by a debate over what has led to the problem in the first place.

Longtime residents speak glowingly of a time when lake beds were sandy and clearly visible from their boats. Fishing was a major industry, and people came from all over in search of the famous bass.

"I saw license plates from Texas and Louisiana," said Pilny, the soil scientist, who moved to Inverness in the early 1980s.

"They came because the fishing was outstanding. Those beautiful sandy bottoms are now 2, 3 feet of muck."

Pilny and other critics trace the accumulation to efforts to control aquatic vegetation with herbicides.

Spraying effectively attacks the weeds, but the dead material sinks to the bottom and slowly decomposes.

"The problem is, you add nutrients faster than the living organisms can take care of them. The next thing you know, you have more weeds because they have an anchor," Pilny said.

"Some people blame us because we spray," said Edwards, the county aquatics official. "If that's the case, the marshes should be muck free" since there is no spraying there. In some cases, he said, there is more muck in the marshes.

"People say, "Where does it go when you spray?' It goes to the bottom. Where does it go when you don't spray it? It goes to the bottom."

Some observers attribute the muck problem to the development of the waterfront property in eastern Citrus County over the past few decades.

Nutrients from fertilizers and septic tanks as well as stormwater runoff entered the water, spurring weed growth.

Emissions from power plants and the burning of fuel may also have played a role.

As development increased along the water, people grew frustrated with fluctuating water levels.

Fishing was poor when the lake was low and high water raised the threat of flooding. Water control structures installed to prevent flooding also held lake levels stable.

People may have been happy, but the lake system was suffering because levels no longer followed historical patterns, according to Mark Hoyer, scientific research manager for the department of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences at the University of Florida.

Historically, times of extreme drought helped control muck naturally as the material was exposed and could dry up or burn if sparked by lightning. Officials say fires would be impractical today because of development around the water.

In addition, during times of high water, weed clumps called tussocks would float and wash to shore. When the water receded, the material would stay to die in the sun.

"We need to go back and see how Mother Nature did it," Edwards said, alluding to the pending Army Corps study, which will review the effectiveness of control structures. "She didn't have bulldozers and heavy equipment."

But she didn't have to contend with a boatload of angry residents, either.

-- Alex Leary can be reached at (352) 564-3623 or leary@sptimes.com.

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