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Worry for future of a beautiful old friend

The boat ramp at Nobleton sloped down to flowing water the color of diluted Scotch.

Once in my canoe, and in the middle of the channel, I could push the full length of a paddle below the surface and still not touch bottom.

Last spring, this stretch of the Withlacoochee River was not a river, just a river bed, dry as a gravel road. For most of the time since then it has been little more than a murky pool.

So, finally, after good rains this spring and summer, the Withlacoochee is back. Not as high as it should be, judging from the exposed cypress roots on the bank. But high enough, on Tuesday morning, for me to plan a canoe trip to Hog Island (about 4 miles upstream) with my 10-year-old son.

As we started to paddle through Nobleton, however, past water-stained docks and folks living the enviable life of watching the water drift by from screened-in porches, I wondered when the river would disappear again.

Because, more and more, that seems inevitable.

Visit the Withlacoochee regularly, look at records of its historic flow, and you see that though it seems as prone to flooding as ever in recent decades, it recedes more quickly and dries out more frequently.

Four times since I moved to Hernando County, I've watched the river reach or approach historic low levels — in 1992, 1997, for a nearly a year during the prolonged drought in 2000 and 2001, and again last year.

"There are these absolutely pronounced periods about five years apart when the river is the driest it's ever been, and that's pretty scary,'' said Charles Lee, the executive vice president of Audubon of Florida, who lives on the river near Nobleton.

Judging from the clarity of the water he saw from his kayak as the river dropped last year, Lee thinks the Withlacoochee depends more on groundwater than most people realize.

It seems obvious that the flow of this water seeping into its bed has diminished, he said, maybe because of the massive withdrawals from the aquifer in Central Florida.

Hydrologists at the Southwest Florida Water Management District disagree. Distant pumping should not diminish the Withlacoochee's flow, and relatively little water is taken from within its drainage basin.

Yes, the river's level has dropped, they say. Its average flow since 1970 is about one-third lower than in the three previous decades. This, Swiftmud staffers say, may be due to a natural, long-term cycle of low rainfall.

As scientists, they should know. But the district also has a history of waiting too long to admit our water supplies are in jeopardy.

That's one reason I worry about the future of the Withlacoochee, especially once developers start building the more than 10,000 houses planned for near Interstate 75 and State Road 50.

I also worry because, as I was reminded again on Tuesday, this is a beautiful river — prettier, to my mind than the clearer-but-tamer Weeki Wachee. Tannin colored and smelling like swamp, it quickly led my son and me into what felt like wilderness — tunnels of green cypresses, alligator snouts dropping beneath the surface as we approached, herons and ibis using the airspace overhead as an open flyway.

So, welcome back, Withlacoochee. Great to see you again. Hope you stick around for a while.

Worry for future of a beautiful old friend 07/03/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2008 1:49pm]
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