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Thirsty river

The once-deep Withlacoochee River shrinks as drought sucks water - but not life - out of the channel.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000

The Withlacoochee River just south of Nobleton looked last week pretty much as it usually does -- wide and slow-moving, with what seemed to be plenty of brown water.

Then our canoe unexpectedly hit a submerged rock and, a few yards later, we came to a sandbar. After crossing it and paddling through a stagnant pool, we reached a strip of exposed riverbed that extended around the next bend and looked like a sandy road with a few brown puddles.

This confirmed what Bob Meers, owner of Nobleton Canoe Rental, had told us before we left: That the drought has reduced flow in the Withlacoochee River almost to nothing, that for long stretches it has dried up altogether, that it is easier to walk the river south of Nobleton than it is to canoe it.

"It's really dry, I mean bone-dry . . . It's a real roadbed now. It got dry the last time, but it's four times as dry now," Meers said, referring to the drought in 1992.

The original idea for this story was that canoeing the river was the best way to view it as its flow, measured at Trilby, dropped to the lowest rate ever recorded -- 4.4 cubic feet per second.

A picture of the river, in turn, could be one of the best indications of drought's effect on the natural system in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, both because the Withlacoochee depends on rainfall and because it is relatively natural.

The river is dry because most of its basin has received fewer thanl 5 inches of rain this year, less than one-third of normal. Its 157-mile route from the Green Swamp to Yankeetown is free of any major sources of agricultural or industrial pollution.

When we realized canoeing was impossible, Times photographer Douglas R. Clifford and I decided instead to walk it, or at least the most popular canoe route -- the 8 miles between Nobleton and Silver Lake. The conditions would stun anyone who has seen the river when it was healthy, when its light-brown water reached the trunks of riverside cypress trees.

Our feet crunched on the shells of stranded river mussels. Some of the fish crowding the small remaining pools had died; others were sluggish from warmth and lack of oxygen. The slow-cooking stew of decaying vegetation smelled more like sewage than a relatively wild river.

This was especially alarming because the previous lows were measured only eight years ago.

Experts, generally, are less concerned.

Withlacoochee is an American Indian word meaning "big-little river," said Michael Molligan, spokesman of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

"It has a very wide pattern of ups and downs," he said. "It's a very flashy river."

That this period of extreme low water has come so soon after the last one might indicate a larger climatic change but probably does not, said scientists with the district. The river was nearly as dry as it is now in the late 1950s and then flooded to record levels in the 1960s. (See accompanying chart.) Less than 21/2 years ago, heavy rains inundated more than 60 homes along the river in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

But the current drought has undeniably been hard on fish -- it may be several years, for example, before the river's bass population fully recovers -- as well as businesses that depend on the river.

Drought affects business, wildlife

The Withlacoochee River RV Park and Canoe Rental in Lacoochee has been driven out of the canoe business by the drought, Meers said. With his standard trip from Silver Lake impossible, the few customers interested in renting canoes must be driven to Dunnellon, where the river's flow is fortified by the spring-fed Rainbow River.

Bill McKay, owner of Wild Bill's Airboat Tours and Wildlife Sanctuary, observed what Swiftmud statistics also show: In Citrus, the river still is higher than it was in 1992. McKay said the drought has not prevented him from conducting tours. Meers is confident his businesses will recover quickly with a few heavy rains.

Any damage to wildlife, likewise, should be temporary, said Sam McKinney, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Drought ultimately has the same benefit to wild rivers that fires have on forests. It clears away accumulated organic matter, promotes the growth of river grasses and stimulates the production of insects and other invertebrates at the bottom of the food chain.

"In a nutshell, this is nature's restoration process," said McKinney, who has worked in Central Florida since 1973. "Right now, it's harsh on a lot of critters, but in the long run it's very beneficial."

His point, that the river's ecosystem is generally vital is clear even at the start of the trip, where the riverbed passes a neighborhood of riverside cottages.

Hoke Cash, 63, agreed with his neighbors that the river is as low as he ever has seen it. He nailed a tag to the trunk of a cypress tree in his yard to mark the crest of the flood in 1998. It is about 15 feet above the ever-shrinking hole below his back deck.

But until a few days ago, that pool was populated with a few good-sized bass. River otters arrived "and pretty well cleaned it out," he said. They, in turn, were chased away by a 5-foot alligator.

Farther south, as we wandered into the Withlacoochee State Forest, the surroundings grew noticebly wilder -- degraded by drought, but wild.

We startled ibis, wood storks, blue herons and ducks. A turtle as big as a Thanksgiving turkey drifted just beneath the surface of one the largest pools. The river beds were a blotter for the prints of deer, raccoons and wild hogs and the winding trails of snakes.

Some predators take advantage of the opportunity presented by the drought to feed on a captive fish population, McKinney said.

"They're having a field day," he said.

Nathan Taber, 15, and his brother Kenny, 14, kids from Bushnell on their first week of summer vacation, fit in well here. They dragged a canoe between pools where they hoped to find fish or gators. Kenny reached into one scum-covered puddle for small sunfish. The first was dead; the second was too exhausted to avoid his bare hand.

Sunfish and bass populations will fall because of the drought, said Chuck Cichra, associate professor of fish ecology at the University of Florida.

But because fish naturally seek flowing water, a sizable number of adults will survive. The most popular sports species reproduce very quickly, with bass generally laying 4,000 eggs per pound of body weight.

"They can produce an awful lot of offspring," Cichra said, though anglers probably would notice a lack of large bass for several years.

River twists, turns, rises and falls

Clifford, who had daily deadlines to meet, turned back after meeting up with the Taber brothers. I continued into one of my favorite parts of the river, a series of tight bends through a cypress forest. On previous trips, I've seen water flowing in a sheet over the cypress knees. It was deep enough in the channel that swimmers couldn't touch the bottom and fast enough that they had to grab roots to keep from being swept downstream.

Now the only water had collected in puddles in the tightest curves.

Farther south, the river became straighter and even drier -- with stretches of a few hundred yards without a trace of water. I was able to walk almost as quickly on the river bed as I would have on the nearby Withlacoochee State Trail.

The channel filled up again when I came within 2 or 3 miles north of Silver Lake, but it still was obviously affected by drought. Falling water had left a rim of white sand or mud between the water and the grass. Rather than its usual tannin tint, the river's water was gray and opaque enough that an alligator surprised me by suddenly emerging a few feet from the bank.

Sue Rupe, the county's tourism coordinator, and her husband, Doug, were the only people on the shore of Silver Lake when I arrived.

Doug Rupe, who recently had returned from a trip to North Carolina, was alarmed at the dry conditions, so both he and his wife decided to check the conditions at Silver Lake.

"This holds a lot of water if you think about it," Doug Rupe said.

"I'm surprised," Sue Rupe said.

It did look relatively healthy compared with the conditions upstream -- the disturbing sight of a river gone AWOL.

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