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Octavio Blanco walks around a cypress tree in the swamp behind his Land O'Lakes house and plays a flute.

It's an American Indian tune designed to elicit the healing powers of the Earth for the struggling tree.

Blanco, a veterinarian, says there's little else he can do.

His swamp _ and an estimated 16,000 acres of other wetlands and dozens of lakes in central Pasco _ have improved but are still too dry despite two years of above-average rainfall.

Meanwhile, public officials have continued wrangling over the same old question: How much of the problem has been caused by heavy pumping at the huge water well fields in central Pasco, and how much has been caused by five years of below-average rain that ended in 1994?

To Blanco, the answer is clear: "Water is still being pumped away at an exorbitant rate."

The Legislature stepped into the debate Friday and passed a bill that seeks to protect water levels. But it seems unlikely to be the last word on the problem.

As the debate goes on, Blanco and his flute have gotten some aid from Mother Nature. This time last year, Blanco could walk in tennis shoes over the dried-up wetlands at his family's cattle ranch.

But after an above-average rainy season last summer and one of the wettest winters in memory, boots are needed once again to traverse Blanco's swamp. An estimated 25 inches of rain fell on Pasco County between October and March, 50 percent above normal for the dry season.

Nevertheless, after last month's rainfalls, Blanco's swamp dropped a foot in a week. The water remains well below the telltale water markings at the bottom of cypress trees that show how high the water used to rise years ago.

The situation is much the same in as many as 16,000 wetland acres near the Cross Bar and Cypress Creek well fields, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the area's water regulatory agency commonly called Swiftmud. Those wetlands remain moderately to severely damaged.

"Just because we've had a couple of years of good rain, that doesn't mean the system has recovered," said Len Bartos, an environmental manager at Swiftmud. "The water didn't get as high as it should have."

Still recovering

The increased rains have helped _ more in some places, less in others.

Around Pasco, many lakes are brimming at levels that remind people of the natural beauty that first drew them.

But in some marshes and small ponds that dot the county's interior, away from the eyes of happy swimmers and boaters, there are reminders that the county's environmental recovery has a ways to go.

As the Times documented in stories in May 1994 and May 1995, lakes and wetlands have for years been stressed in and around central Pasco's big regional well fields, which send most of their water to more densely populated Pinellas County.

Cypress trees have continued to fall, or are leaning sharply, their bases weakened and dried. The woods are dotted with shallow pits created by a lowered water table. In places, leaves appear brown and yellow.

Swiftmud, Blanco and other water activists in Pasco suspect wetlands and lakes haven't risen faster because of the groundwater pumping by the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, which sends about 50-million gallons a day from Pasco to Pinellas County.

After years of debate about the effect of the pumping, West Coast now concedes the pumping has some effect near its well fields. But the agency says the problem will be solved by a combination of increased rainfall and new well fields being planned. So the agency has resisted cutting back on pumping.

West Coast and Pinellas County are generally on the same side of the issue, with Swiftmud and Pasco County on the other.

The fight is headed for a showdown during a hearing in July, when West Coast will seek to renew permits at four of its well fields. Swiftmud has sought to cut pumping to an amount it says is necessary for the surrounding environment.

The recovery of wetlands is of particular concern because swampy areas are so important ecologically.

They provide food, water and habitat for a variety of animals, especially birds.

They are also filters for drinking water. The sponge-like peat keeps rainfall and runoff from immediately returning to the aquifer, allowing micro-ogranisms and sand to clean the water before it gets back into the drinking water supply.

To try to measure the effects of pumping, Swiftmud evaluated 30 wetland areas around the Cross Bar well field in the spring of 1994 and again last October.

Following five below-average rainfall years, the summer of 1994 finally brought average rainfall. And 1995 saw rainfall of more than 56 inches, about 2 inches above average.

During both surveys, Swiftmud found a clear pattern that wetlands closest to the well field were driest. There were exceptions, because some types of soil hold water better.

To be sure, conditions are improving _ but slowly, said Bartos of Swiftmud.

"The wetlands that two years ago had only three months of standing water now have it nine to 10 months a year," he said. "The ones closer to well fields, which had water zero months, now have three to four months of water."

Wetlands normally need to be submerged six to 10 months a year to survive, he said.

Other signs of continuing stress are species of upland and exotic vegetation, such as blackberries, myrtle and dog fennel, that have crowded into formerly pristine wetlands.

However, Dave Bracciano, a resource analyst for West Coast, says stressed wetlands near the well fields aren't necessarily destroyed forever and can be revived.

"Wetlands change; they're dynamic systems," Bracciano said. "If they get drier for a period of time . . . they can come back, although the function may not be what it was originally. What is an acceptable functional loss? I don't know."

Bracciano noted West Coast is currently working to bring new water sources on line from this year through the year 2000 in Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

That will give the authority a wider spatial distribution of well fields and more flexibility to rotate pumping among them during dry periods. That in turn should put less stress on wetlands in central Pasco.

But how will wetlands fare before the new well fields are built?

"With continued above-average rainfall, we expect the (number of) wetlands under stress will get smaller," Bracciano said.

Bartos said Swiftmud wants to tie West Coast's pumping to what the environment can sustain.

Sorting through a raft of proposals for reforming state water policy, the Legislature Friday reached a compromise requiring Swiftmud to set minimum levels for water bodies by October 1997.

Swiftmud's board agreed in December to require higher groundwater levels at four major public well fields within 10 years, which could cut pumping as much as 50 percent. Both moves could generate more litigation.

Bartos of Swiftmud is optimistic the systems will rebound. "I don't want to say they'll be identical to what they were before. . . . That could take thousands of years."

Praying for rain

Swiftmud suggests that even if the region gets five years of above-average rainfall matching the five below-average years between 1989 and 1994, that probably won't be enough to fill the system back to capacity. That's because pumping has already drawn down the water table so far, as much as 22 feet down in one monitoring well on the Cross Bar well field.

That means the next dry spell could wreak more havoc than the one between 1989 and 1994.

Swiftmud cites other signs the system is still too dry. Jumping Gulley Creek, which used to drain the Cross Bar Ranch into Crews Lake, is still bone dry.

"If you look at the historical record after you have a dry period, after we've had 18 months of rain like we've had, Jumping Gulley should be flowing," said John Parker, a permitting supervisor at Swiftmud.

Then there is the experience of Big Fish Lake.

The lake, which has become Pasco's poster child for the evils of pumping, was once 287 acres in size.

It went dry in 1990 and stayed that way, except for a few wet pockets, until September of last year, when it finally started refilling. Now the lake has grown to about 40 acres and is 10 feet deep at points, said Jan Dillard, a member of the Barthle family that owns the ranch around Big Fish Lake.

But the lake's current level is still about 8 feet below where it was in 1980. And the gauge that took that measurement can't be used any more, because it's mounted on a dock by the lake that still sits about 60 feet from the water's edge.

Dillard noted the lake went dry after a drought in 1957. But with normal rainfall, it jumped back to 70 acres in one year and to its full size in three years.

"What happened to us happened before the below-average rainfall between 1989 and 1994," Dillard said. "Our lake was dry at the end of 1990 _ after they increased the pumping at Cross Bar."

With dog fennel lining the lake bed, "It's still not a lake you would look at and say, "That looks nice.' "

The return of higher lake levels may have lulled some Pasco citizens into a sense of security.

"A lot of people have not been quite as vocal and active and coming to meetings as they were when they were all sitting there with dry lakes," said Judy Williams, a director of the Coalition of Lake Associations. "But they know that with the next low rainfall, their lakes will go back down. . . . I just hope the rain will keep coming."

Lakes are up _ for now

A much wetter-than-average winter has continued to fill parched lakes in Pasco County. But experts disagree how long that will last. And despite the heavy rainfall, half the lakes listed here remain slightly below their average levels for this time of year. Numbers represent the level of the surface of the lake, in feet, above sea level. A one-foot change can significantly affect a lake's size.

Location April 1994 April 1996+ Historical April

avg. ++

Crews Lake 46.52 51.04 51.71

Moon Lake 36.40 39.30 38.69

Hancock Lake 98.15 101.10 99.91

Lake Iola 140.36 140.20 142.67

King Lake (east) 96.56 101.93 103.40

Lake Padgett 67.82 69.94 69.66

Camp Lake 53.04 60.88 60.30

Linda Lake 61.40 65.05 64.48

Lake Parker (Ann) 45.10 47.48 47.03

Lake Pasadena 84.65 87.52 88.27

Note: The Southwest Florida Water Management District uses all these lakes as indicators of the health of the region's water system. That's because the lakes have generally been measured for many years, which lends more statistical validity to the averages.

+ Some of these measurements were taken in late March.

++ The historical April average is the average of the lake levels in all Aprils on record.

Source: Southwest Florida Water Management District