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Cleaning up lake is messy work

Lake Lindsey is a mess right now.

The surface of the water is littered with the shredded stalks and tuberous roots of shoreline plants. Black mud adheres to the shore like an oil slick.

And from the northern edge of the lake there is the constant buzzing sound of what is called a cookie cutter. An aluminum, bargelike vessel, it has two circular blades mounted in front like airplane propellers. On Wednesday afternoon, the contraption was cutting through an expanse of a shore plant called pickerelweed, spewing up green stalks, blue flowers and muck.

Despite the appearance of destruction, this is all extremely beneficial for Lake Lindsey, said J. D. Wikert, a biologist with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

The lake, about 5 miles north of Brooksville, was being choked by floating mats of vegetation called tussock islands.

"You could have a lake covered with a floating island," Wikert said.

As more of the plants grow and rot, muck forms beneath them, he said: "So eventually you've got marsh. And marshfront property isn't nearly as desirable as waterfront property."

The main concern, though, is not property values. It is making the lake more inviting for wildlife and humans. Because the problem was unusually bad at Lake Lindsey, and because the lake attracts many boaters and anglers, the game and fish commission, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Southwest Florida Water Management District are working together to clean it up.

The project began March 19 and will continue about another week. It is expected to cost at least $20,000, primarily to pay the two private companies that own and operate the equipment being used.

The islands are caused by low water levels and nutrients, such as cow manure, that have washed into the lake. When the water drops, trees begin to sprout on what was once the lake bottom. When rains come again, the trees, along with their roots and the earth adhering to them, float to the surface.

Historically, floodwaters would naturally flush the lake, occasionally depositing the islands on the shore. But that hasn't happened in several years, Wikert said.

Nearly 15 acres of water was covered with the islands or floating vegetation along the shoreline. They can do more than quickly turn the lake into swamp. Because the vegetation cuts off access to the air, the water below has very low levels of dissolved oxygen, which is essential to the survival of fish, said Robbie Lovestrand of the DEP.

And the biggest of the islands _ one covered a half-acre _ were being blown around the lake like runaway barges, suffocating healthy shoreline plants and causing inconvenience and confusion among boaters.

On several occasions, islands blocked the lake's public boat ramp. At least once, an island _ which, with its mature trees, is indistinguishable from the shore _ blew against the ramp while a fisherman was on the lake.

"He thought he was lost because he couldn't see the ramp when he got back in," Lovestrand said.

The cookie cutter slices up the network of roots that hold the floating islands together while coots and egrets land behind it, foraging through the freshly disturbed muck for food.

Then, another unusual vessel, called a harvester, scoops the debris off the water. And with the help of a conveyor parked by the boat ramp on the eastern edge of the lake, the muck and chewed-up plants are deposited into a truck.

Some trees, including a stand of four cypresses that remain from the biggest island, will root in the lake bottom to create ideal fishing holes, Wikert hopes.The tallest cypress is nearly 30 feet tall and probably 10 years old _ a good indication of the age of the island itself, he said.

That means that when all this messy work is done, Wikert said, the lake probably will be in better shape than it has been for a decade.

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