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Four dry years hurt even as the rains fall

George Blust stands on his dock in a light drizzling rain, pointing across the narrow neck of the Withlacoochee River to a stick poking out from among the leaves.

"See those lily pads?" he said, eyeing his unofficial water level gauge. "It's almost close to normal."

After a hot summer of record-breaking low water on the Withlacoochee River, the sight of the dark brown water rising over the cypress knees can come none too soon for Blust, who owns Withlacoochee River Canoe Rentals & Transportation in Nobleton with his wife, Debby.

A dry summer after four years of drought had turned the Withlacoochee into a string of damp potholes. Though the river still is low, late-summer rains have turned it into a river again. For boat rental owners on the river, the rains came just soon enough to save the end of the canoeing season.

Heavy downpours expected this weekend will do some good _ any water will _ but the real benefit comes from slow, gentle rain that has time to soak into the ground, said Bill Hennessey, director of community affairs at the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly called Swiftmud.

"It never hurts. But to make a big difference, we need to recharge the groundwater," he said.

But not all the news is good. The rainy season is drawing to a close now, and the river is expected to drop, not rise, through the winter. And, though the river has risen, the water hasn't been high enough to completely fill the chain of lakes stretching from Floral City to Hernando in Citrus County.

Iris and Louis Baggett, owners of Withlacoochee River RV Park and Canoe Rental in Lacoochee, say they lost three-quarters of their business this summer. Virtually nobody rented canoes from Memorial Day through Labor Day, normally the heart of the canoeing season. If this winter is dry, it could put them out of business, Louis Baggett said.

"If we had a drought now, we would be in foul shape," he said. "There's no use in me paying for Yellow Pages and all that if I don't get any trade."

And at Lake Tsala Apopka in Floral City, a 70-foot stretch of sandy beach and boat slips left high and dry tell the story.

Sue Ellen Friddle, co-owner of Moonrise Resort on the lake, estimates the lake is 7 feet lower than normal. That means the business she and her husband have renting cabins and boats has been cut in half. Fishermen and water-skiiers don't want to risk tearing up a propeller _ or worse _ in the shrunken lake, she said.

"You can walk across the lake and back and not be over your head," she said. "I don't know what we're going to do, to tell you the truth."

One thing many people want is for Swiftmud to do something _ anything _ to raise the water levels. Four months of meetings with the citizens' committee called the Withlacoochee River Work Group have drawn lots of angry people and lots of blame onto the heads of Swiftmud staff. A citizens group called TOOFAR, or Taxpayers Outraged Organization For Accountable Representation, blames low water levels on Swiftmud, and some have called for the organization's demise. Most of the heat has come from people in the Lake Panasoffkee area, where low lake levels have been blamed on the removal of a dam in 1988.

"They could put beavers out there and do better than Swiftmud," said Louie Baggett. He thinks the water management district should install a series of dams to keep the water up during dry spells, not just in Panasoffkee but also in the southern parts of the river.

But Hennessey and regional wildlife managers say dams won't necessarily help the problem. They say river-dwellers who believe there is a secret dam in the Green Swamp to divert the water to Tampa or who think dams will solve the problems along the river should look to nature, not man, for solutions.

Unlike other Florida rivers, which have been dammed and channelized, the Withlacoochee is fairly natural, and the rising and falling of the water is an essential part of the natural system.

"It's considered healthy to have high water and low water," said Jim Kelley, biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

Wading birds, ospreys, alligators and other fish-eaters gorge on fish trapped in stagnant pools during drought periods.

Organic muck that has collected on lake and river bottoms has a chance to dry out, often compacting 3 to 4 feet of soft goo into a few inches of hard bottom. That makes for better fish breeding and clearer and deeper water, Kelley said.

When the lakes and rivers refill and flood new areas, the fish thrive because they have more insects and other food sources, he said.

Fishermen who suddenly find lots of fat, robust fish assume that it's due to the high water, forgetting that the cycle of high and low water creates the bonanza, said Sam McKinney, regional fisheries biologist with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission in Ocala.

"It's kind of like cleaning your aquarium in your house," he said. "Nature's going to take its course."

Though it's common for people to start pushing for a dam during dry periods, damming up water changes the ecology and can be harmful to fisheries over time, he said.

One negative result of the drought has been a profusion of nuisance plants such as water hyacinth and water lettuce, which choke out oxygen and light from waterways and can make rivers impassable, said Wendy Andrew, aquatic plant manager for Swiftmud.

The plants did quite nicely in the muddy river bottom without much water, but Swiftmud staff couldn't get boats in to spray the weeds. But Andrew said they're beginning to get the plants under control now that the water is higher.

Hennessey said the sure solution is rain _ slow, soaking rains that fill up riverbeds and lakes and saturate the aquifer. When the aquifer is low, it can actually absorb water from rivers and lakes like a sponge, rather than helping fill them.

But a call to let nature take its course is difficult for people who make their living from the water. Blust and his wife have both taken outside jobs for the first time in the 13 years they've owned their canoe rental _ he in a restaurant, she in a plant nursery.

And if the winter is a dry one? "I don't know what's going to happen this spring," Blust said.