Cleaning damaged lake bottoms is not cheap, but low water levels are making efforts easier across the state.
By JULIE HAUSERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- Believe it or not, there is something good about Florida's record drought: It may help polluted lakes all over the state, from the vast pine forests of the Panhandle to the wide-open country around Lake Okeechobee.
Scientists have been fretting for decades that Florida's explosive development has sent contaminants into Florida's lakes. Nutrients from fertilizers and septic tanks can tip a lake's natural balance, upsetting the biological apple cart. The nutrients make water plants grow out of control, stealing oxygen that fish and other creatures need to thrive.
In high water, lake cleanups are expensive and difficult. But with some lake bottoms now turned to brittle, dirt saucers, lake restorers are cranking up the bulldozers and scooping away polluted sediments.
When the rains return and the waters rise, the lakes should be cleaner than they were before.
"Some of these lakes, the bottoms haven't been exposed to the air for 50 years. The muck is two feet deep," said Michael Hill, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Hill, who helps restore lakes in North Florida, was featured on the local television news one night in Tallahassee. "The weatherman said, 'Well, we finally found someone who is happy about the drought!' " Hill said.
No other southern state has a lake district like Florida's. Florida has about 7,800 lakes -- about 6 percent of the landscape. Collectively, the lakes are about half the size of Lake Ontario. Most Florida lakes are quite shallow. At least one, Lake Apopka near Orlando, was so polluted that its entire ecology collapsed. Florida has spent millions of dollars trying to clean it. "All the recommendations for the past 20 years have been to get the accumulated sediment out," said Duncan Cairns, who works on lakes for the Northwest Florida Water Management District, near Tallahassee. "Even if you don't go in and remove the sediments, just drying them out helps."
Using limited state dollars, state environmental officials are scooping out sediments on big lakes, such as Highlands County's Lake Istokpoga and Lake Okeechobee, the second-largest freshwater lake in the contiguous United States.
They are trucking away dry lake bottom at Orange Lake near Gainesville, Tiger Lake near Lake Wales and Lake Jackson near Tallahassee. In remote Lake Miccosukee, east of Tallahassee, lake restorers set a fire and burned the lake bottom to knock back pesky water weeds.
"In most of these cases, the lake water quality will be better for the next 10 years. It's like resetting a clock," said William Landing, a Florida State University professor who studies water quality.
Some lakes may also be better protected from new pollution: In the past 15 years, communities have been building catchment areas to filter polluted rain runoff before it gets into the lake. Even though the new catchment areas often can't outpace new development, the structures should help, officials say -- especially when the lakes are starting off cleaner than they were before.
In southwest Florida, officials had plans to scoop out sediments in Pinellas County's Lake Maggiore and Lake Seminole, Polk County's Lake Hancock and Sumter County's Lake Panasoffkee.
But the plans weren't far enough along -- and the money wasn't yet available -- to get started when the drought hit its peak, said Bruce Wirth, director of resource management for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud.
"Everyone says: Now is the time to run out there with bulldozers and clean this out. Well, a lot of times we don't have the funds or the permits," Wirth said.
Lothian Ager, a fisheries biologist who works for the state wildlife conservation commission, has been working on Florida lakes since 1967. He has never seen Florida lakes this low and wishes the state could have been better prepared to take advantage of it.
"We don't have enough money to do all the lakes that need to be taken care of," Ager said. "There are no contingency funds anywhere to take care of situations that Mother Nature provides, unless it's a hurricane or something life-threatening."
This year, the Legislature opted to provide more money to heal ailing lakes: $5.7-million a year over the next 10 years, with the money coming from the state's documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions.
But the needs are so great that all of next year's money will go to one project: starting the cleanup on Lake Tohopekaliga, near Kissimmee. And it still won't cover the project's $7-million to $8-million cost.
"Fixing lakes is not cheap," Ager said.
And, there are political problems. The dredged lake bottom has to go somewhere. In the case of Lake Seminole, neighborsbalked at a plan to put the dredged lake bottom in a landfill in Largo, and now Pinellas officials are considering other options.
The state first has to test the lake bottom to make sure there's nothing hazardous in it. If there isn't, the muck is either piled up in the lake to form islands or spread on dry land somewhere else.
If officials can scrape together state, federal and local dollars, Florida still has time to scoop out more lakes, Ager said. Even a year full of good rain won't fill the lakes.
"It will take some major rainfall to get the lakes back up," Ager said, "so we're going to work while we can."