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Blame dry Withlacoochee River for closure of Nobleton Outpost

Corinne Berry's 7 1/2 oak-shaded acres on the Withlacoochee River would make a great RV park, she said. Or maybe a new owner could turn a profit by building a few more cabins — there's one there already — and running the on-site pub and restaurant.

Renting canoes might also help pay a few bills, but it won't bring in dependable income. The river goes dry too often.

"You can't make it as a full-time canoe outpost,'' said Berry, who bought the property, home to the Nobleton Outpost canoe and kayak livery, with a former business partner in 2004 and closed it last weekend.

One enterprise going down in this economy may seem barely worth mentioning (though it does mean the loss of six jobs in this community of fewer than 200 residents in northeastern Hernando).

But it's a bigger deal if you consider what the Outpost's failure says about long-term rainfall in an area that markets itself as the Nature Coast — and has a stated goal of building an ecotourism industry.

Obviously, if the ecology is shot, you can forget about tourism.

And though evidence of long-term environmental change is not conclusive, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, we at least know that renting canoes on the Withlacoochee used to be a steady moneymaker.

Rob and Leslie Justis opened the forerunner of Berry's Nobleton Outpost in 1976, after they sold their Datsun 240Z sports car to buy a few canoes. They had 60 by the time they sold the livery in 1980.

"We were able to build a good business,'' Rob Justis said. "During the four years there, we had no problems. … There was always enough water.''

That includes in 1977, when the river's annual average flow at Trilby dropped to what was then the lowest level since the U.S. Geological Survey installed a gauge in 1928 — 86.1 cubic feet per second.

The flow has now dropped below that point seven times, including six times under 50 cubic feet per second. Four of those years have come since 1999, including 2007, which set a stunningly low record for average flow: 9.6 cubic feet per second.

Though many factors forced the closing of the Outpost, including the lousy economy, low water is definitely not good for the canoe rental business, Berry said.

"This year, I've only had maybe 2 or 2 1/2 months when I could rent canoes. … The river's going down again, and probably, after December, I wouldn't have been able to rent canoes anyway.''

Nor is it good for fishing, boating or birding, all of which are featured prominently on the county's Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site.

"The water quality and the absence of water in an area that markets itself as a tourist destination — that is definitely going to have an effect,'' said Sue Rupe, the county's tourist development coordinator, whose Web site also brags that the World Wildlife Fund named the river's namesake Withlacoochee State Forest "as one of the 10 coolest places you've never been to in North America.''

So is the river's flow really in permanent decline?

Well, droughts certainly seem to be more frequent and severe than they once were, said Marty Kelly, Swiftmud's flows and levels program director. One indication of that is the completion date of the Withlacoochee's minimum flow study — meant to determine how much water the river needs to maintain its health — has had to be postponed. There hasn't been enough water lately to study the river during normal or high levels, he said.

Kelly is also the author of a 2004 study that offers probably the most comprehensive explanation for the dropping river levels in peninsular Florida since 1970.

That's been due primarily to declining rainfall, not pumping as is commonly believed, he said. And these rainfall declines have probably been caused by a long-term climate pattern called the Atlantic Multidecadenal Oscillation. Between 1930 and 1970, the tropical storm seasons were unusually severe and the rainfall unusually heavy because the Atlantic Ocean passed through a warm period, he said.

The ocean cooled in the decades after 1970, which resulted in fewer tropical storms and, naturally, slightly less than average annual rainfall. And because most of the rain that falls in Florida quickly returns to the atmosphere, he said, a decline of a few inches per year can have a profound impact on lakes and rivers.

"If we get 50 inches of rainfall and we lose 40 through evapo-transpiration, we're really left with 10,'' he said. "If we get 45 (inches of rainfall), we're only left with 5 inches for river flow.''

There's only one flaw with the oscillation theory: The last cooling cycle in the Atlantic ended in 1995 or 1996, Kelly said, and two of this region's worst and longest-lasting droughts have come since then.

"Theoretically, we're in a warmer phase. We should be seeing more tropical storms and hurricanes,'' Kelly said.

So, here's my chance to renew an old complaint with the district: In setting minimum flows and levels and determining how much water we can pump, it should look harder at the possible causes of the long-term drop in rainfall. Swiftmud shouldn't assume that we'll always have as much rain to feed rivers, lakes and the aquifer as we have in the past.

And if the Withlacoochee is disappearing, we should know why.

When it's flowing as it should be, an afternoon on the river is an unbeatable experience — clean water, banks lined by pastures or tall cypress, and herons and egrets slipping through the airspace overhead.

For those of you who haven't seen it, the World Wildlife Fund is right: It's one of the coolest places you've never been.

Blame dry Withlacoochee River for closure of Nobleton Outpost 10/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 31, 2009 1:04pm]
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