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Sinkhole may be at bottom of lost lake

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

It was Christmas in July for the egrets and great blue heron that scout the unnamed lake behind Palmetto Drive.

Sometime before dawn Sunday, they received the gift of a suddenly exposed lake bottom. Below them, both in altitude and on the food chain, lay enough small marine morsels to choke on _ a kind of Stacey's Buffet for wading birds.

But for the humans who also live there, the scene was more eerie than pleasant.

Their docks were left high and dry. The once-pretty views from their back yards now were surreal, a portrait of bare banks.

In a few hours, the still waters in the long, narrow lake had dropped by more than half, dramatically altering what had been an excellent fishing hole filled with blue gill, bass, turtles and a couple of alligators.

According to residents of the neighborhood, the loss occurred sometime between midnight and 6 a.m. Sunday.

"I can't figure it out," said Barbara Palmer, who has lived on the lake for four decades. "It's just amazing to me that it never happened all these years. Why now?"

Answer: It was just one of those things and not all that unusual. That's the conclusion of county officials who inspected the scene over the weekend and on Monday.

The lake is in an unincorporated area between Clearwater and Dunedin.

Jim Terry, the county's director of coastal management, said the cause probably was a sinkhole or a fracture in the limestone layer.

He said the lake is about 250 meters long and 20 meters wide. In football terms, that's about 2{ fields long by 22 yards wide.

According to Terry, it sank 6 or 7 feet. That means the lake lost about 4.5-million gallons or the equivalent of about 450 backyard swimming pools.

Louis Mihalinec, whose home and vegetable garden sit at the south end of the lake, was concerned that all that escaped water might somehow weaken the ground under his home.

"My concern is: What is it? Where is it? And what's going on?" said Mihalinec, who began inspecting his property for cracks over the weekend.

"I'm not frantic, not going to stay in my house concerned," he said. "But I am concerned."

Terry said the water went into the aquifer and is no threat to nearby homes. He also said it appears that the large hole that took out a dock near Mihalinec's property appears to have plugged itself with silt from the lake.

It is possible the lake will replenish itself, Terry said.

As evidence of that, he cited findings from a procedure performed by Mihalinec, who jammed a stake in the lake Sunday afternoon and had noticed a 2{-inch rise by Monday.

Palmer, who used to panic when the lake lost a few inches, is one of several residents who hope it will restore itself.

"I love it here," she said. "It's just a pretty, pretty lake."

How a sinkhole forms

Water seepage from above ground creates an underground cavity that grows upward through the confining layer. The weight of the earth above eventually causes the confining layer to collapse. At this point, the ground material begins to pour into the cavity, like sand into an hourglass.

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