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Lake project's other result: dry lawns

Besides killing exotic weeds, the use of herbicides in canals around Lake Tarpon will make the water unusable for irrigating grass.

By ROBERT FARLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 3, 2000


PALM HARBOR -- With his grass already turning brown, Tim DeBord says the timing couldn't have been worse.

The notice that appeared on his doorknob Thursday said he and his neighbors should not use water from Lake Tarpon to water their lawns from June 12 until Aug. 14. Next week, Pinellas County workers plan to begin applying herbicide to kill exotic weeds in six canals, including the one behind DeBord's home on Mildred Drive.

Using lake water for irrigation is a perk allowed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and enjoyed by most of those who live by the lake and the canals that lead to it.

But county officials say those residents may have to use public water for a while. Use lake water with the herbicide in it, and it could kill the grass.

"They're going to force us to use drinking water to water our lawns," DeBord said. "It must not be as big a drought as we thought. Sometimes it makes no sense what they want to do."

The complaint strikes Jeff Ball, the county's assistant district supervisor of mosquito and vegetation management, as somewhat ironic.

Water runoff from developed properties, including lawn fertilizers, helps accelerate the growth of the lake weeds the county is targeting.

Still, Ball said he understands DeBord's concern. County officials held off on the herbicide program for several months, hoping to hit a narrow window when there would be just enough rain to reduce the demand for lake water, but before heavy summer downpours would flush the herbicide from the canals.

In that time, however, the invasive aquatic weed hydrilla has begun to choke several canals and needs to be checked before it becomes a bigger problem.

"We knew there would be some concerns with water restrictions, especially with the drought," Ball said. "But this is when we have chosen to do it. We're just trying to do our job to stop the spread of weeds."

That comes as little consolation to some who say the restriction could spell the demise of their lawn.

"You spend a lot of time and money on your lawn to try to get it to look decent and then this," said DeBord's father, George DeBord, who lives next door.

Ball said it may be a matter of either having a nice lawn or a nice body of water behind it.

The weed-control program on Lake Tarpon is an annual event. Without it, hydrilla quickly would take over the lake, Ball said.

Hydrilla was imported from Sri Lanka in the 1950s for use as an aquarium plant. But the exotic plant found its way into Florida waterways and flourished. Hydrilla can grow an inch a day, he said. Left unchecked, Ball said, it would overtake the entire lake in a few months. The recreational boating that is so popular on the lake would be impossible.

This year, six of the 19 canals around the lake were deemed to contain too much hydrilla, Ball said, and will be treated with herbicide. Only those who live along those six canals have been instructed not to use lake water for irrigation. The county hung notices on the doorknobs of affected homes.

The canals affected include ones between Mildred Drive and N Canal Drive; between Canal Drive and Lakeshore Drive; between S Canal and N Canal drives; between George Street and Richards Road; and by Hunt Road.

The beginning date of the program, June 12, was set to allow homeowners enough time to water their lawns before the herbicide treatment, Ball said.

In preparation for the herbicide program, the county has spent the past two weeks in the canals using a mechanical harvester to cut back and remove some of the hydrilla. That way, when it is killed with herbicide, Ball said, not so much will collect on the lake bottom.

The county controls the canals around the lake and the Southwest Florida Water Management District controls the lake itself. Three times last month, Swiftmud workers spread herbicide in the lake, but because Swiftmud deals with less confined areas of the lake, the restrictions placed on lake water use typically last only a week, said Swiftmud aquatic plant manager Brian Nelson.

William Perry of Mildred Drive said he planned to start using lake water again now that a Swiftmud posting has expired.

"I don't want to burn what little lawn I've got," Perry said.

But he was willing to hold off for a little while.

"We don't like using our house water (to water the lawn)," Perry said. "It seems like a waste. That water is made for drinking."

Perry said the lake is now at the lowest point he has ever seen it since he moved there in 1969. Hydrilla chokes the foot-deep water around his dock.

"It makes me sick," Perry said. "And it brings around the gators, too."

For his part, Tim DeBord hopes rain makes the whole issue moot.

"If it (the herbicide program) is something they have to do, I hope a week or so later we get some rain," he said.

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