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As residents and government officials wait and look to the sky for relief, the lakes and rivers that help feed our growing thirst are disappearing. Is this temporary or just the beginning?


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 17, 2001

As residents and government officials wait and look to the sky for relief, the lakes and rivers that help feed our growing thirst are disappearing. Is this temporary or just the beginning?

Last month, in the driest days of the drought, an aerial tour of Hernando County showed its landmark waters had ebbed almost to the vanishing point.

Hunter's Lake, which once covered 302 acres of southern Spring Hill, had been reduced to a sprawling puddle and a few scattered potholes.

Lake Theresa, west of Deltona Boulevard, was a sandy plain, covered with sparse grass and crisscrossed with white paths made by off-road vehicles.

The Weeki Wachee River, fed by what historically has been one of the nation's largest springs, was a thin green ribbon.

Several miles east, over parched woods and lawns -- and hundreds of bright blue swimming pools -- the remains of the Withlacoochee River resembled a dirt lane connecting stagnant gray ponds.

The drought in Florida has killed fish and countless acres of grass. It has encouraged the spread of forest fires and the Southern pine beetle, endangered crops, cut into the business of golf courses and ruined canoe liveries.

But of all the symptoms of the drought, the most alarming in Hernando County has been the drying lakes and rivers, partly because it may represent the future.

The county's surface waters have been dropping not just for the last three extremely dry years, but for more than a decade, according to Southwest Florida Water Management District statistics. Any benefit brought by the recent rains has been barely perceptible. Water levels this year have approached record lows set last year, which broke marks set in the 1990s.

As rivers, lakes and swamps decline, so will the populations of wildlife dependent on them. And in a county marketing itself as part of the Nature Coast, damage to such prominent natural features could have a long-term economic impact.

Even more significantly, in an area where ground and surface waters are tied as closely as they are here, the water above is the most visible sign of changes in the overall system -- the mercury in the thermometer. Its decline may be the first indication that water is being pumped faster than it is being replaced, despite assurances from Swiftmud about Hernando's long-term water supply.

In January, Hernando County commissioners asked Sonny Vergara, the district's executive director, to address their concerns that the county may not have enough water to feed an anticipated boom in development. He told them the drought was only a short-term problem, and that future growth "isn't going to place such an additional demand on the system that will cause it to fail."

Some people familiar with the district think this view is too optimistic. They also doubt that Swiftmud knows exactly how much water can be pumped without damaging surface waters because it has not set standards, originally required by a 1972 law, designed to protect them.

Without better management of growth and water, they say, Hernando may become as chronically dry as counties to the south, where wetlands have disappeared and formerly deep and healthy lakes are spoken of in the past tense.

"I disagree with the water management district," said state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, who worked there until February.

"You can say you have adequate supply and adequate sources, but the more building that takes place and the more is pumped to the south of us, the more our resources are going to be affected. The water supply will obviously be impacted."

"If we say we don't have a long-term problem, we're doing the people a disservice," said Al Coogler, the vice chairman of Swiftmud's governing board, who lives in Lecanto and grew up in Hernando County.

"All we have to do is look at Pasco County, and Hillsborough and Pinellas. If we don't get going with some alternative sources, especially with (the expected growth from) the Suncoast Parkway, we're going to find ourselves in the same position as those other counties."

30 years in the making

There is no doubt that the health of Hernando's rivers and lakes is waning. Evidence comes both from people who have observed them over decades and from scientific data.

The Withlacoochee has been in decline for 30 years, according to Swiftmud statistics. From the 1930s through the 1960s, its average flow was more than 400 cubic feet per second. Since then, it has been less than 250 cubic feet. Since the start of the new decade, it has virtually ceased flowing.

The average volume on the Weeki Wachee was 16 percent lower in the 1990s than in the 1980s. Over the same two decades, Hunter's Lake dropped 1.8 feet, and its average level in the 1990s was almost equal to what Swiftmud calls the "drought year low" -- the point historically reached during the driest month of a very dry year. In the past 11/2 years, it has dropped to nearly 4 feet below that standard.

Dry conditions have brought even more dramatic changes to smaller wetlands, said Shirley Kohler, a retired biologist and a member of the Hernando chapter of the Audubon Society.

Ponds are turning into prairies that hold water only periodically. Prairies, which had historically been kept clear of trees by frequent floods, now support pines, Kohler said.

"Once you see more weedy plants, plants with stronger stems and bigger root systems that can go deeper for moisture, the boggy conditions are gone," she said.

McKethan Lake, north of Brooksville, was once consistently deep enough that the state maintained a swimming area there, said Roy Clardy, a senior forester who has worked in the Withlacoochee State Forest for 32 years.

Frequent dry spells in recent years have allowed the intrusion of vegetation, which has rotted and turned to muck, so the lake's basin is now only a few feet deep. Most of it is covered with dog fennel, a transitional plant that indicates formerly wet land is going dry, as well as a few young sweet gum and willow trees. The same species have invaded other nearby wetlands, including Twin Pond, in the Croom Tract of the forest.

Virtually all the symptoms of degradation in the Weeki Wachee -- which is now running 40 percent below its historical average -- are at least partly because of low flow: saltwater intrusion, cloudiness, sand deposits and, obviously, water levels that have dropped 2 or 3 feet in the last 20 years.

Residents should not cheer the recent, regular appearances of manatees in the river, said Coogler.

"The spring used to flow so firmly in the Weeki Wachee that manatees couldn't swim up there," he said. "That's a sign the spring is no longer putting out the water."

Beneath the surface

In comparison with its lakes and rivers, the county's groundwater supply is in good health.

The porous soil in Hernando, especially on the west side, allows water to filter quickly into natural underground reservoirs, said Granville Kinsman, the water management district's hydrologic data manager.

Though Swiftmud monitoring wells have shown long-term declines in groundwater levels, recent tests have also demonstrated that the aquifer below Hernando holds hundreds of feet of fresh water, even near the coast.

This is one reason the district is so confident of the supply, Kinsman said, despite what seem like huge withdrawals here and in neighboring counties.

In Pasco, an average of 111-million gallons was pumped per day last year, almost precisely the historical average flow of the Weeki Wachee River. Three-fourths of this water was pumped by Tampa Bay Water -- a wholesale distributor that supplies most of the Tampa Bay area -- meaning it had no chance to return to the local aquifer.

In Hernando, the average daily pumpage was 43-million gallons; in Citrus, the average was 24-million gallons; and in Sumter it was 26.5-million gallons, much of which was sucked from mines near the Sumter-Hernando county line. None of the totals include the thousands of unmonitored private wells scattered throughout the region.

But only the Cross Bar Ranch well field, where Tampa Bay Water is permitted to withdraw 22.5-million gallons per day -- and where pumpage peaked at more than 30-million gallons per day in the mid-1990s -- has a real impact on Hernando, Kinsman said, and then only in a slim crescent in the south-central part of the county.

This means, for example, that pumping draws from the basin of the Weeki Wachee only somewhat and from the Withlacoochee hardly at at all, he said.

"Really, there is no pumpage to any appreciable extent in that region," Kinsman said of the northern part of the Swiftmud district, which includes Hernando.

Surface waters in Florida have always fluctuated, he said. The current declines are part of a normal though prolonged dip caused primarily by generally low rainfalls over the past decade.

But the sieve-like soil that supplies the aquifer also drains surface water. When the water table in the aquifer drops, lakes, rivers and swamps will follow. That is one reason so many people -- resident activists, legislators such as Brown-Waite, ecologists and some independent hydrologists -- believe pumping deserves more blame for surface-water deficits than Swiftmud acknowledges.

Norm Crossland, a retired environmental scientist and a member of Hernando Environmental Land Protectors, said Swiftmud's own statistics show that the Weeki Wachee's level dropped dramatically in the 1990s while rainfall deficits were relatively slight -- including some years of average rainfall.

Mark Stewart, a geology professor at the University of South Florida, said huge withdrawals for mining and the public water supplies in Hillsborough and Polk counties have been proven to sap the Peace and Hillsborough rivers. The same factors almost certainly undermine the Withlacoochee, he said, because all three rivers share the same source: the Green Swamp.

"You have to consider that the Hillsborough and the Withlacoochee pass within about a mile of each other at one point. They are separated by one small wetland," he said.

None of Hernando County's major lakes have disappeared entirely, as have some in central Pasco -- including Big Fish Lake, which once covered 270 acres and was healthy enough to support a 22-pound bass.

Still, said Tom Champeau, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, pumping has caused consistently low water levels in Hernando's lakes and declines in fish populations.

"Until we can get the groundwater level reactivated, and stop pulling so much water out from under them, it's going to be a recurring problem," he said.

If lack of rain is the primary culprit, other scientist say, it is time for Swiftmud to investigate whether annual rainfall has dropped permanently.

The evidence of this is slight, Kinsman said, especially because rainfall records in most of Florida extend back less than a century. Similar dry spells may historically be a common feature of Florida's climate, he said, and scientists would have no way of knowing about them.

But an increasing number of meteorologists doubt this view, said Jim O'Brien, Florida's state climatologist and a professor of oceanography and meteorology at Florida State University.

Swiftmud's former director of planning, Cecil Palmer, began investigating long-term reductions in rainfall as early as the 1970s. And, when working with Polk County in the 1980s, he identified long-term rainfall deficits at 13 of the 14 monitoring stations he studied throughout the state.

A more recent study, using computer modeling, has tied such declines to the draining of wetlands and suburban sprawl. This development has reduced the surface water available to supply the state's afternoon summer thunderstorms, the study found.

"Reputable scientists have indicated the total annual rainfall has definitely decreased," O'Brien said. "I really think (the cause is) development. . . . That's a plausible theory."

Standard of flow

The role of both rainfall and pumping on surface waters could be better determined by setting minimum flows and levels.

The minimum levels are measures of the smallest volumes needed to maintain the health of rivers, lakes and wetlands. Setting the levels requires the study of each body of water and all of the sources that contribute to it.

A series of state laws, the first of which was passed 29 years ago, has required water management districts to establish the standards throughout Florida. The laws also call for districts to restrict pumping when actual amounts dip below the minimum marks.

That this system is still not in place stands as one of the district's biggest failures, said Clay Colson, a Pasco County water activist and a member of the new Naturecoast Group of the Sierra Club.

"It's a joke," said Colson, who attributes the delay to political pressure from development interests.

Other factors played into the delay as well, said Pete Hubbell, Swiftmud's former executive director.

"It always bothers me when people say, "You had until 1972. What took you so long?' " Hubbell said.

When the original law was passed, the agency was just beginning to understand the state's hydrology, meaning that setting meaningful standards was a huge job, he said.

"You better have your technical base on real sound footing because it's going to be challenged," Hubbell said, "and if you're in an indefensible position it's not going to work."

Also, the original law set no timetable and was vague about restrictions, said Ken Weber, the district's water use program director. As a result, though Swiftmud eventually set minimum levels on more lakes than any other district in the state, the standards did nothing to limit groundwater pumping -- only the obsolete practice of withdrawing water directly from the lakes.

New laws addressing minimum flows and levels were passed in the late 1990s. So far, however, Swiftmud has established them only for the southern Hillsborough River and lakes and wetlands serverely stressed by Tampa Bay Water's pumping.

The process was necessarily compromised, said Roy Harrell, who was chairman of the district's governing board when the standards were set, not only because of competing interests, but also because the resources had already been severely degraded.

Once the volume in a lake or river has been permanently reduced by years of pumping, he said, the district cannot base its standard on a true historical average. To do so would essentially shut down the economy of areas that depend on the groundwater beneath them.

The mandated minimum flow of the Hillsborough River, for example, is a meager 10 cubic feet per second, and the district allows the flow to be fortified by water pumped from a brackish spring. To avoid a similar situation in Hernando, Harrell said, minimum flows and levels should be set as soon as possible.

"You've already had the impacts, so if you want to go to pristine, you can't be there," he said.

"All you can do is make sure it doesn't degrade from there."

Immediate action is impossible, however, Weber said, because rivers and lakes with more severe environmental problems -- and in more densely populated areas of the district -- take higher priority.

Swiftmud is scheduled to set levels for several lakes in Hernando County by the end of 2002, and minimum flows for the Weeki Wachee River in 2005 and the Withlacoochee between 2006 and 2010.

"Until we have those studies done," Brown-Waite said, "they won't have established the relationship (between pumping and surface water levels), and there's no way to tell if long-term damage has been done."

The role of government

In the meantime, Brown-Waite and other elected officials say they will try to protect the county's water resources by all means short of one suggestion that has some popular support -- putting a stop to all development.

"I don't want to see a moratorium. The economic impact would be devastating," Brown-Waite said.

County commissioners and local legislators stand united against outsiders using the county's water -- as proven by their response to a recent suggestion that Tampa Bay Water tap into the Weeki Wachee River. Beyond that, they advocate exploring alternative sources, controlling growth and encouraging conservation.

The once-a-week watering restrictions imposed during the drought are almost certainly here to stay, said Kay Adams, the county's utilities director.

The restrictions should provide an incentive to plant more drought-hardy landscaping. So might a seasonal water rate increase the County Commission passed this year. The new rates raise the price of water during peak irrigation months in the spring, especially for the biggest users.

The county's new landscaping ordinance requires elements of xeriscaping in new lawns. Brown-Waite pushed a state law passed in the 2001 Legislature that outlaws deed restrictions that forbid such environmentally responsible planting.

As desalination becomes cheaper and more efficient, the building of more of these plants could reduce demand on the county's groundwater, Brown-Waite said.

While Hernando's population is still too small to contemplate providing residents with treated wastewater for irrigation, Adams said, the county will soon be able to supply it to some golf courses.

But state Rep. David Russell Jr., R-Brooksville, says that managing water use ultimately will require managing growth.

Russell said he plans to continue to push for a bill that would require local governments to prove water is available for any development they allow. Though the bill stalled shortly after he introduced it this year, it may well pass in 2002 when the Legislature is expected to focus on growth management issues.

Whether or not it passes, Hernando County commissioners say they plan to adhere to its principles.

"We have to make sure water is available for everything we allow," said Commissioner Nancy Robinson.

But she and other commissioners also said they have little legal power to stop projects, such as golf courses, on the basis of the amount of water they are expected to consume. Deciding whether adequate supplies exist is Swiftmud's responsibility, not theirs, commissioners said.

"We have to rely on this agency, which obviously has all the information and all the hydrologists," Commissioner Diane Rowden said.

"We have to depend on their expert advice and information."

What's downstream?

What will Hernando County look like in the long run if Swiftmud and county leaders do not do enough to protect water resources? Maybe like it does now.

Florida's natural system has evolved to thrive on wet and dry cycles. Short-term droughts help clear away accumulated organic matter in lakes and rivers, and promote the growth of river grasses. Fluctuating water levels can stimulate the production of insects and other invertebrates at the bottom of the food chain.

Real damage sets in, however, when dry spells become more frequent and bodies of water decline permanently.

Fish confined in drought-shrunken pools can be choked by a lack of dissolved oxygen or killed in large numbers by predators swimming in close quarters. Populations of large fish may not recover for years and, in lakes that have dried up altogether, will not return at all without stocking, said Champeau, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"Our fish can handle a lot of extremes, but a completely dry lake is not one of them," Champeau said.

Some people view the fresh water that flows into the Gulf of Mexico as wasted, said Ernie Estevez, director of the Center for Coastal Ecology at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. They are wrong, he said. Estuaries are the incubators of marine life.

Small, immature sea creatures cannot cope with high salt levels, Estevez said, so "probably 90 percent of the (saltwater) species spend at least part of their life cycles in a low-salinity environment."

"Whey you have a drought that settles in for a couple of years like this one, it really starts to change the structure of the food web," he said.

The same is true in swamps, which have a similar role in a freshwater system that estuaries have in saltwater, said Kristin Wood, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

May Prairie, the wetlands at the Chinsegut Nature Center north of Brooksville, has gone dry only twice since Wood began working there seven years ago -- in 2000 and again this year.

Last month, she walked down a boardwalk lined with plaques explaining the life cycles of usually common species, including dragonflies and frogs, that were nowhere to be seen.

Unlike fish, amphibians and reptiles can survive long dry spells, though their populations may be permanently diminished through missed breeding cycles. The many species that depend on them as a food source will decline for the same reason.

Three years ago, as part of a study she conducted, Wood trapped 149 black swamp snakes, 65 pig frogs and dozens of other reptiles and amphibians in 32 days.

"This is an extremely productive little wetland," she said.

Most adult birds and mammals who hunted there have probably been able to find alternate food sources, she said, but maybe not enough to reproduce -- something that probably happened last year as well.

"You won't lose any species in an event like this," she said. "What you will see is a lack of abundance."

The effects on humans, of course, are not so dramatic.

Hernando's economy is no longer as tied to the natural system as it was when it was an agricultural county. Still, watermelon crops have been ruined, hay production is down, and steers take longer to reach maturity.

The dry conditions have seemed to discourage some homebuyers, real estate agents said, especially when they viewed what was supposed to be waterfront property on non-existent lakes. Outdoor recreation in the county has likewise become a harder sell, said Sue Rupe, Hernando's tourism coordinator.

"It's kind of difficult when people call and inquire about canoeing and boating and we have to tell them our rivers and lakes are very dry," she said.

The least tangible effect -- the aesthetic damage to the county when its rivers and lakes are low and stagnant rather than clean and full -- may be the one that most people care about.

Clayton Williamson, 66, moved into his house on Lake Theresa in 1996. At the time, water reached up to a culvert that now juts into the air about halfway down the bank behind his house. The lake level dropped, then rose again in the winter of 1997-98, and has mostly been falling ever since.

The sight of wading birds has been replaced by county workers periodically mowing the grass in the bottom of the lake. Williamson used to watch water skiers; now, he sees speeding all-terrain vehicles in the lake bed.

The only benefit of living by the lake now, he said, is that he can use it as a golf range.

"I hit balls out there and go out and retrieve them," he said.

"It's too bad. It really was beautiful when there was water out there."

- Dan DeWitt covers the environment, politics and the city of Brooksville. He can be reached at (352) 754-6116 or

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