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Project reviving languishing lakes

Lakeside residents dream of boating again while Swiftmud extends a water-sharing project.

By JOSH ZIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003

KEYSTONE -- For Walker Middle School students, Horse Lake is a living laboratory where they can conduct real-life experiments.

Last year they observed how drought affects beleaguered plant and aquatic life, science director Elizabeth Carroll said. This year, because of a project that is transferring millions of gallons of water from Lake Pretty to nearby lakes, they will see how the physical world responds to abundance.

Carroll is excited about watching things grow instead of die.

"For me it's a definite plus because of the vegetation out there," she said. "We lost a lot of trees we tried planting."

Since September, the Southwest Florida Water Management District has pumped 250-million gallons of water through temporary pipes to lakes Horse, Raleigh and Rogers. The results are stunning, with water levels rising between 5 and 7 feet. For the first time in years water is lapping up near dock platforms from a combination of rainfall and the pumping.

Now Swiftmud is extending the project westward toward struggling lakes where homeowners can barely remember the last time they launched a boat.

On Tuesday the district's Northwest Hillsborough Basin Board approved the staff's request to spend up to $325,000 to extend the pipes to at least three more lakes: Rainbow, Church and Juanita. If this phase of the project brings similar results, it may be expanded to include lakes Echo, Velburton and Little Moon, Swiftmud's operations manager Gary Kuhl said.

Kuhl said Lake Pretty has extra water because it is fed by a network of lakes connected by channels and creeks. The lakes scheduled to receive pumped water are generally isolated and more vulnerable to drought and well-field pumping.

"They're not even close to their minimum low levels," he said. Although it is close, "Church is certainly not up to where it should be."

Pumping should begin in two to three weeks. The surplus water, created by heavy El Nino rains, will not arrive too soon for Lake Church residents, such as Helen Wehle.

Wehle and her lakefront neighbors arguably got the project going. They grew so disenchanted with low water that they complained to both Swiftmud and Tampa Bay Water. But when Swiftmud announced the reinstallation of lines first used during the El Nino event of 1997-98, they were disappointed to see Lake Church left off the list.

"We're real happy with today's vote," said Wehle, one of several residents attending Tuesday's basin board meeting. "We could still take another foot."

Kevin Espy, who recently moved back to Rainbow Lake, said he can't wait to ride a boat there for the first time in five years.

"Looking forward to having the lake back," he said.

During the first phase, the district simply ran out of money, Kuhl said. One reason for the higher-than-expected cost was the expense of leasing quieter electrical pumps. Residents complained last time about the noise from diesel fuel pumps, he said.

During Tuesday's meeting Kuhl also addressed concerns the project could spread exotic plants to other lakes. He told board members some of the targeted lakes already suffer from exotic species.

This time the district has plenty of money to work with, Kuhl said. In fact, he predicts lakes Church, Rainbow and Juanita can be filled for about $100,000.

El Nino is creating an historic opportunity to refill the lakes and recharge the aquifer, said water activist and Lake Juanita resident Eileen Hart.

"If we don't do it when we have the chance, when are we going to get another chance?" she said. "We need to keep the water."

-- Josh Zimmer covers Keystone/Odessa, Citrus Park and the environment. He can be reached at 269-5314.

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