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Whatever the reason, lakes are vanishing

In Florida, shallow basins prone to occasional flooding are known as prairies.

So maybe that's what we should call them.

I've heard them called mud puddles, which is what they look like during extreme drought. And glorified retention ponds, which is how they function.

Whatever they are, those designations on our maps that promise hundreds of acres of blue vistas in Spring Hill — Hunter's Lake, Lake Theresa, Lake Crescent and Citrus Lake — are not really lakes.

Not like they used to be.

Anita Conner, 83, moved to the shore of Hunter's Lake in 1946 and operated a fishing camp there for decades.

"There was always enough water for a boat,'' she said.

Wayne Norfleet, 69, who grew up in Aripeka, camped on Lake Theresa as a boy and never remembers seeing it empty.

Cindy Koepke, 57, said that when she moved to a house overlooking Lake Theresa 26 years ago, her neighbor's docks led to water, not thin air. She saw boats on the lake, not all-terrain vehicles on the lake bed.

"It was gorgeous,'' she said. "You'd never know it now.''

Maybe you're sick of hearing this.

I've written grim columns about declining water levels in the Withlacoochee and Weeki Wachee rivers. I've scolded homeowners for jeopardizing our natural treasures by pumping millions of gallons of groundwater onto their lawns. I've said it's draining the beauty and value from our community.

Is this just my own obsessive concern? Maybe. I know some people at the Southwest Florida Water Management District think I'm an alarmist.

They say pumping has drawn lake levels down less than a foot. The real problem is the pattern of low rainfall that dates back more than 30 years and may be due to anything from long-term cycles in the climate to global warming to loss of wetlands.

They say the concern that inspired this column — that the lakes are still mostly empty after a robust rainy season and the drenching from the remains of Tropical Storm Fay — is misplaced. We're still in a deep rainfall deficit from the previous two years of drought, they say.

And even in generally wetter times, the water levels in these lakes fluctuated wildly. That is reflected in Lake Theresa's historic name, Weekiwachee Prairie Lake, which was changed by the developers of Spring Hill, the Deltona Corp., to market their new community as a mecca for boating and water skiing.

All true, I'm sure. But that doesn't change the fact that these lakes are in decline.

Look at a graph of the water levels in Hunter's Lake, and you'll see a definite downward trend, like the heartbeat readout of a failing patient.

Swiftmud's own measurements show the six-year average depth of Hunter's Lake is only inches above what the district has set as the minimum level, 17 feet above sea level.

That's despite spikes in 2003 and 2004, when Spring Hill was hit with two tropical storms.

And right now? Well, both Lake Theresa and Hunter's Lake have rebounded only slightly from their near-historic lows of the last two years.

The view from Koepke's back yard is of a series of shallow pools at the base of long grass, which inspired another possible name for these lakes on maps of the future.

"It looks like a marsh,'' she said.

Whatever the reason, lakes are vanishing 09/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 8, 2008 11:34am]
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