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After dry decade, water levels not what they used to be

McKethan Lake has been lower than it is now.

In 1993, its deepest pool was nothing more than a bog. Thirty or 40 years ago, the lake north of Brooksville would shrink to a puddle one season and spill over its banks the next, said Joe Weeks, whose family has owned a nearby farm since the 1930s.

"It was consistent in the fact that it was inconsistent," Weeks said.

But Eddie Duval, who may have watched the lake more closely for more years than anyone, can point out signs of grave and permanent damage.

"With the current water levels the way they are, it's in recession as a lake. That's quite obvious," said Duval, assistant park manager at the state Division of Forestry office north of Brooksville.

Oak saplings and sweet gums are growing up in what once was part of the lake, which is just west of U.S. 41 about 7 miles north of Brooksville.

Dog fennel is a "poverty plant" that thrives in areas where land is in transition, Duval said. The plant has taken over the rim of the lake, which may indicate the soil is going from wet to dry.

Even the flooding of the lake two years ago could be a symptom of long-term low water levels. A drying bed has allowed the encroachment of plant life; as the plant life has decayed, muck has begun to fill the basin.

Last week, at the end of Florida's rainy season (though before the heavy rains at the end of the week), the lake was reduced to a hyacinth-clogged pool in the northeast corner of its traditional basin.

"We didn't get much rain, and you can surely see it," Duval said.

Duval, 53, grew up on a farm near Nobleton and spent most of his childhood roaming the land "wherever I could push a boat or ride a horse," he said. He has lived pretty much the same way during his adult life, having worked for the Forestry Division since 1975.

He is worried not only about McKethan Lake, and not just about the most recent season of low rainfall.

The entire landscape has changed, most obviously over the past 20 years. Springs have gone dry, ponds have become prairies and lakes have become ponds. It might be because of the low rainfall of the past decade, he said. But because the changes correspond to increased population in Florida, Duval suspects pumping of water is also to blame.

"The facts we have are that our water table is lower. And that has a direct effect on the capacity of the lake," he said.

This sets up a familiar argument. Throughout the past decade, residents have insisted that the pumping of groundwater has dried their ponds and wells; the Southwest Florida Water Management District has said otherwise. Although the agency recently acknowledged the effects of pumping in the southern part of the district, the effects are negligible to the north, Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan said.

In Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, 233-million gallons are pumped from the aquifer per day, he said; in Hernando, Sumter and Citrus, that figure is 90-million.

"That's a real difference in the concentration of pumping and the amount of pumping," he said.

Between June 1 and Oct. 1 of this year, Brooksville received 23.33 inches of rain; normal is 30.17 inches. Over the past 12 months, not including the weekend that just ended, 41.5 inches fell in Brooksville, compared with an average of 54 inches.

So it is mostly because of low rainfall that McKethan and other lakes are low, Molligan said.

But they are, he agreed, very low.

As of Oct. 21, the end of the wet season, the average lake in the northern part of the Swiftmud district was 3.13 feet lower than what is called the minimum management level. That is the lowest level the lakes have historically reached at the end of the dry season.

And others besides Duval say that McKethan Lake, in particular, is a different lake than it used to be.

Opened when the federal government bought what is now the Withlacoochee State Forest in the 1930s, McKethan Lake was the only part of the forest developed for recreation. Old photos show lakeside benches and picnic pavilions; one of them, formerly at the entrance of the park, was in the shade of the world's largest magnolia tree, standing 110 feet high, according to a 1938 story by the St. Petersburg Daily Independent.

In the years before county parks, McKethan Lake was one of the few spots to go swimming or have a picnic in Hernando County. There was a sandy beach as well as a raft anchored in the deepest pool, Duval said. It was considered one of the best bass lakes in the county, said Steve Fickett, former Hernando Audubon Society president and a biologist with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

"At one time, that was much more beautiful than it is today," he said. Many things probably contributed to the fish kills. Mostly, though, it was the consistently declining water levels.

"It had more water in the past; that's certainly true," Fickett said.

Duval, as he tours other parts of the forest, can point out other discouraging sights.

A hiking trail descends from Tucker Hill off Croom Road in the middle of the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest. There is some residual moisture in the ground, it is clear, because of the ferns growing among the rocks in the grotto.

But there is also what looks like a dry creek bed, which at one point held enough running water to justify a log bridge that still spans it.

"You can tell by the gully, there was a spring here for a lot of full moons," Duval said.

He drove on the sandy forest road to Twin Pond, about 2 miles to the southeast. Because it was called a pond rather than a lake, it has probably always been prone to drying out, Duval said. But there is no visible water there at all now, and a thicket of 30-foot swamp willows has grown up in the middle of its basin.

In a Swiftmud directory based on aerial photos taken in 1969, Boggy Pond, near the southern tip of Croom, is listed as a 13-acre lake.

"It wasn't a great big lake, but there was an area you could fish in," said Sam Lawson, 69, who lives on nearby WPA Road and remembers having picnics around the lake.

Early last week, it had shrunk to a body of water slightly larger than a backyard pool, all of it covered with lily pads.

"There's not much there," Duval said, "which, unfortunately, is very typical."

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