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Drought provides opportunities, too

Dry conditions hamper routine aquatic weed control. Instead, county workers can spend time cleaning up lake beds.

By Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001

Dry conditions hamper routine aquatic weed control. Instead, county workers can spend time cleaning up lake beds.

The mostly cloudless drought, it seems, has a silver lining.

The lake levels are so low that the county's Aquatic Services Division cannot push out its boats and do its normal aquatic weed control efforts. So the crews have found time to do other long-neglected projects, such as picking up garbage from the now-exposed lake bottoms and cleaning up Cooter Pond. A few workers have even led roadside litter patrols in recent weeks.

"We've been busy doing different things but we're trying to keep our activities as close to the lakes as we can," Aquatic Services Director Thomas Dick said. "It is allowing us to get ahead of the game in some respects with tree clearing (along boating trails) and removing the trash. Those are the things that fall to the back of the list of priorities during a normal season, but now we are able to go out and address these things."

Dick took over the aquatics division in 1982. Most of the time his crews maintain the aquatic plants along some 300 miles of boating trails, clearing away enough vegetation so boats can pass, but leaving some plants to support the natural habitat.

As Dick told Citrus Times reporter Bridget Hall Grumet, the occasional drought gives his crews time to catch up on other projects that benefit the waterways.

* * *

Question: What projects have your crews had time to do because of the drought?

Answer: One of the first things our crews started to do was build concrete structures to create an artificial reef habitat in the Gulf of Mexico. They were cutting concrete poles and stacking them into structures 10 feet wide, 10 feet deep and 10 feet tall, and the structures weighed 14 tons apiece. It was a monumental effort, and my hat goes off to the crews, who put a lot of time and energy into something they would not expect to do as aquatic plant technicians.

Then we moved back into the lake chain . . . and we borrowed two all-terrain vehicles from the Sheriff's Office and policed almost 80 miles of lake shoreline areas for almost two months. We collected a lot of things: an early 1900s Coca-Cola bottle from Hernando, anchors, fishing poles, tires with rims on them. We found an old safe -- there was nothing in it, and it looked like it may have been involved in a robbery because there was a hole blown in it. We had a lot of unusual things coming out of the lake bottom. From there, because there has been a lot of publicity about roadside litter and it being a top priority with the county, we actually volunteered (to lead county jail inmate crews in picking up roadside litter). We had two crews out there every day, and they picked up 10,100 pounds of trash from April 12 to May 1. We're going to pledge those crews until it becomes time for us to begin supervising muck removal activities, which will probably start in two weeks.

* * *

Q: How did your crews clean up Cooter Pond?

A: Because Cooter Pond does not have a boatable connection to the (Tsala Apopka) lake chain, it does not fall in our normal aquatic plant maintenance program. In February, we volunteered to mobilize one of our mechanical harvesters (a machine that works like an underwater lawn mower), and almost 6 acres of vegetation was removed from Cooter Pond. The Road Maintenance Division came in and removed some of the overgrown willow trees and vines that were obstructing the view. It really does look good. I've seen more activity along the water's edge, with cars and people fishing down there. It's unbelievable how many people are taking advantage of that.

* * *

Q: In what ways do you see the drought affecting the waterways?

A: One thing we've noticed is that a phenomenal number of armored catfish, which is not a beneficial fish species for the lake at all, have died in the drought. They're predators for the most part, they're not a good sport fish. And they're from another area, they don't have natural predators here, so the population grows beyond what is desirable. We're also seeing in some areas without significant amounts of muck that the thin layers of muck are drying up, getting crusty and hard. When the water does come back, those materials are going to wash away. So the natural effect of the drought has been beneficial in drying up organic layers that are not too thick.

The bad thing we're seeing is a tremendous expansion of the plants that are normally confined to the shallow areas of the lake. Now that the first 100 or 150 feet of the lakes are dry, the plants are marching their way into the deeper water, and that will create the need for additional aquatic plant maintenance activities.

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