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Not wet enough // Lakes rise from dust with some modern help

Among the lakes that have risen in recent months, three have had a little help from engineering.

It has been nine months since a project began to refill the three lakes near the Cross Bar Ranch well field that had been sucked dry.

Now, Lake Loyce, Triangle Lake and Monsees Pond, all victims of below-average rainfall coupled with massive groundwater pumping, are beginning to resemble the healthy lakes they once were.

At Monsees, an alligator has taken up residence. There are turtles and birds of all kinds and deer tracks leading to the water's edge.

"The catfish they put in last August probably weigh a pound now. Of course, we fed them," says Steve Monsees, the pond's namesake and one of three property owners on its banks.

However, after spending $300,000 on the project, the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, which operates Cross Bar, has yet to satisfy the homeowners.

The problem is that West Coast's permit for the project allows the agency to augment the three lakes' levels to no higher than what is called the extreme low management level.

Below that elevation, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, has determined the lakes' ecosystems would be harmed.

All three lakes have been fitted with pumps that automatically turn off when the lake reaches the extreme low mark. The pumps serving Lake Loyce and Triangle Lake haven't operated since before April because rainfall has kept their levels above the mark.

But Monsees Pond has dipped below the low water mark, and the pumps haven't always come back on, Monsees said.

When the pumping resumes, about 182,000 gallons are pumped per day from the Floridan Aquifer into the 5-acre pond.

The augmentation has produced spots 7 or 8 feet deep. But more than a third of the pond has only about 18 inches of water.

"We're very afraid the lake will be covered with weeds and it won't be of much use to anyone," Monsees said. Already, he said, "It's difficult to paddle from one end of the lake to the other."

That's a far cry from the promise he thought West Coast made: to fill the lake completely.

Not so, said Bruce Kennedy, director of resource management at West Coast.

He said he hopes rainfall will fill Monsees Pond more. But for now, he said, "I think it's a viable water body to support the biological community associated with it."

Another homeowner on the pond, retired biology professor Wayne Smith, said the aquifer below the pond was so overpumped that the pond won't recover without a combination of augmentation pumping and rainfall.

"To me, they owe us a whole bunch of water," he said.

But John Parker, a hydrologist at Swiftmud, said the augmentation regimen must remain in effect as long as areawide conservation restrictions remain in place.

"You've got many, many (wetlands) systems around Cross Bar deprived of water. As you gather up water to help this one site, the water has to come from somewhere. It's coming from all the other areas that needed water."

The project faces other criticisms.

Some lakeside residents worry the project has robbed water from the already overstressed Floridan Aquifer. But Parker said the water seeps back into the aquifer.

Critics also complain that the project is a waste of money when the real solution would be to force West Coast to drastically cut back pumping at Cross Bar.

If the lakes' levels are not ideal, Parker said, at least they provide some refuge for wildlife.

Despite the controversies, Monsees said, "It doesn't mean we've not happy with what we have now versus what we had a year ago."

Lake Loyce gets a good soaking

Engineers set up a system to pump water back into Lake Loyce. Water levels have rebounded, although not fully, critics note.

After seeing Lake Loyce dry up in 1994 and 1995, engineers put in a system to augment the lake by pumping in water from the Floridan Aquifer. The $300,000 project put in pumps at three lakes that automatically turn off when they reach the extreme low mark. The pumps at Lake Loyce haven't operated since before April because rainfall has kept the water above its extreme low level.