To help ailing Lake Seminole, county turns to a $7-million cure

Decades of untreated stormwater runoff have taken their toll. But a project to restore the lake should begin in January.

Published May 30, 2005

SEMINOLE - When standing in the shade of a nearby tree to admire the beauty of Lake Seminole, one finds it hard to believe that the lake is sick.

But it is. And it has been for a long time.

Now Pinellas County is planning to try a $7-million cure - a remedy that raises concerns with some nearby business owners and residents.

"This lake has not been normal for years," said Jim Griffin, a senior environmental scientist with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud. "The charts are just out of sight."

The main problem is decades of untreated stormwater runoff that has carried fertilizers and pesticides from nearby homes and businesses into the lake. Once there, the fertilizers and pesticides encouraged algae growth - that's the green tinge in the lake.

As the algae grew, local vegetation was choked out and more muck accumulated.

"Fish can't spawn in the muck," said Kelli Levy, an environmental program manager with Pinellas County.

Levy will oversee the Lake Seminole cleanup, a project that will have two phases that run simultaneously. The first phase is scheduled to begin in January with the lowering of the lake.

Once the lake is taken down from its current 5-foot depth to about half that, bulldozers will scrape up the muck. The muck will be taken to a nearby county-owned tree nursery where it will be composted. The resulting compost will be spread on county parks.

When all the muck is gone, the lake's sandy bottom will be left, and the lake will be allowed to rise again. It would be back to a navigable level - about 4 feet deep - by the end of March.

Exposing the sandy bottom "makes it much healthier for fish," Levy said.

That also makes it healthier for plants. County officials will wait for about a year to see what sprouts naturally and may eventually add appropriate plants to the lake.

While the lake is lowered, boats and other watercraft will be banned. The county also will take the opportunity to do any needed repairs and improvements to the boat ramp and the area surrounding it.

That's the cleanup phase of the project.

The second part of the project involves installing filter systems to clean the stormwater as it drains into the lake.

The entire project should be completed by September 2008.

Although the lake will be closed for part of the project, the park will remain open.

Anissa Raiford, who lives on the edge of the lake in the Townhomes of Lake Seminole, attended an informational meeting Wednesday to see the county's plans.

"With them lowering it and the kids playing out there, it's a real concern," Raiford said. "There's so many little kids."

Raiford said she plans to stop her 4-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter from playing on their dock once the water goes down. It is not only the prospect of having a child get stuck in the exposed muck, she said, but it's the wildlife that will be disturbed.

Gators already have come into her yard, and the prospect of snakes looking for new refuge is also disturbing, she said.

Levy said animals should not be a problem. The alligators will follow the water, she said. They'll have a larger area on which to sun themselves for a while, but they'll hang around the lake itself to cool off.

In 1940, what is now Lake Seminole was a extension of Long Bayou. The lake itself, which is a bit more than 3 miles long, was created later that decade when Park Boulevard was built.

The water quality of the 684-acre lake was declining as early as the 1970s. By the 1980s, invasive and nuisance plants, such has hydrilla and cattails, began taking over and grass carp were put into the lake to help control the hydrilla growth.

Repairs began in 2001 with construction of ponds, weirs and an aquatic habitat restoration project. While there was some improvement, the freshwater lake continued to decline, adversely affecting plants, wildlife and recreational activities because of murky water and mucky sediments.

This latest project will be paid for by monies from state and federal agencies as well as Swiftmud and the Penny for Pinellas sales tax.