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Water levels rise in lake chain

Bud Andrews caught a 10-pound bass last weekend, the biggest he has taken on Lake Tsala Apopka since February 1993.

After years of complaints that the lake chain was dying, the water levels are rising and people are flocking back to go swimming, fishing or water skiing or ride waterscooters.

They're also visiting Andrews' tackle shop and fish camp on State Road 44.

"It's been a blessing," he said about the lake's level. "Business has been super."

But, he added, "When you had the drought, it shook up a lot of people. You lose a lot of people who get fed up."

After heavy thunderstorms last weekend, the lake's level continues to be higher than during the five-year drought that ended last summer.

It's still a long way from flood stage. But as the region enters the summer rainy season, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, is still working on projects to bring more water into the lake chain.

As of Monday morning, the Floral City pool was nearly 39 feet above sea level. The Inverness pool stood at 39.2 feet and the Hernando pool was at 37.44 feet.

That's below the minimum levels where flooding begins: 42.5 feet, 40.5 feet and 39 feet, respectively.

In fact, the Floral City pool was below the so-called minimum desirable level of 40.25 feet set by Swiftmud, a kind of average annual low. The Inverness and Hernando pools were above their minimum levels.

After last summer's above-average rainfall, the Floral City pool got as high as 41.23 feet above sea level. It has fallen more than the Inverness pool because it apparently has more sinkholes and connections with the underground aquifer, said Jimmy Brooks, director of Swiftmud's Inverness office.

Rain has fallen this year nearly at last year's pace. About 23 inches fell in Inverness from January through June 1994, compared with 21.6 from January 1995 through Monday night.

It may take as much as a week for storm-related water to reach Citrus County from the Withlacoochee River's headwaters in the Green Swamp, Brooks said.

Swiftmud officials are pleased by the current water levels.

"We're in much better shape than we were this time last year," Brooks said. "If we get a normal rainy season, I think you'll see the lakes full."

The lakes may rise further beginning today, if Swiftmud staffers start allowing water to flow from the rising Withlacoochee River to the Floral City pool. The agency opens a dam on the Leslie Heffner Canal, which connects the two, only when water is high enough in the river to flow into the lake.

Swiftmud's approach pleased a frequent critic of the agency.

"They finally have a man who is sincerely interested in our troubles up here," said Frank Robinson, referring to Tim DaFoe, who oversees dam operations for Swiftmud.

Robinson is president of TOO FAR, or Taxpayers Outraged Organization for Accountable Representation, a citizens' group.

Meanwhile, Swiftmud is still working on two projects to keep lake levels up during the dry season. One is to dredge the Leslie Heffner Canal.

Swiftmud has a low bid of $770,000 from Premier Dredging of Lakeland to scoop out the entire 10-mile length. The work is awaiting final permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers.

That project could begin next month, said Tom Harrison, manager of Swiftmud's engineering section.

The project will remove an average of about 2 feet of silt, 4 feet in spots. The work should take about 10 months, Harrison said.

The district is rebidding a project to build a dam at Moccasin Slough, a channel separating the Inverness and Floral City pools that allows water flow at higher levels.

Robinson of TOO FAR is not as pleased with these projects. After more than two years without success, the group is still lobbying Swiftmud to replace the Wysong Dam, an inflatable structure at Carlson's Landing. The agency removed it in 1988, saying it was ineffective.

"If you don't have (38 feet of water) in the river, you're not going to fill the lakes no matter how deep you dredge the canals," Robinson said. "They should restore the dam first."

Meanwhile, Harrison is also working on a proposal asking the Army Corps of Engineers to allow Swiftmud to hold back more water in the lakes.

Currently, the agency must open dams to drain lakes during the summer to keep them at certain minimal levels. That practice was originally devised as a flood-control measure.

However, Harrison argues the levels fall naturally on their own to the minimal level without use of dams, due to evaporation and sinkholes.

The change would allow Swiftmud to hold the lakes about a foot higher than under current rules when the lakes are low, Harrison said. It would not allow the agency to hold water above the flooding level.

Harrison still must convince the Army corps the plan doesn't require an environmental impact statement, which could be expensive and time-consuming.

If he succeeds, he said the corps will hold a public hearing on the plan this fall.

The change could be approved by December. That's not in time to hold back water from this year's rainy season but could help next year.