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First aid for Tsala Apopka

At first glance, Arbor Lakes looks like any other sprawling Florida subdivision.

Curvy asphalt roads windover sandy terrain past comfortable, cookie-cutter style houses. Not far away is the water, in this case the Hernando Pool of the Tsala Apopka Lake Chain.

Typical, yes. But the beauty of Arbor Lakes, according to some, is what is not happening.

There are no lakefront homes or docks. Instead, a thick strip of native greenery lines the shore. What is underneath the 380-lot development also is telling.

Each home is, or will be, hooked up to central water and sewer when most homes around the lake are not. Drainage pipes funnel all runoff from lawns and streets into two large retention ponds so contaminated water does not invade the lake untreated, but filters through sandy soil before entering the aquifer.

As a youth, developer Tom Chancey spent long hours fishing on the unspoiled Tsala Apopka with his father. As an adult, the Tampa native said, he became disgusted with the unbridled development that tarnished the Tampa Bay waterfront.

"One of the first concerns I had with this land was protecting this lake system," Chancey said during an interview last week at his Arbor Lakes office.

"We could have built 60 to 70 sites on the water for a lot of money," and boat slips selling for $5,000-$7,000 apiece, he said. "I swore . . . I would not do that."

According to many observers, decades of development and recreational use have reduced the quality of Tsala Apopka's 19,000 acres of water and wetlands.

Residential herbicides and fertilizers have fed the waterway with nutrients that encouraged the growth of non-native plants, such as hydrilla and water hyacinth. State- and county-funded weed control programs, designed to maintain open access to the lake's three main pools, added more chemicals to the mix.

In addition, the combination of federally mandated water-level reductions with drought conditions is believed to have encouraged unnatural vegetation growth of large, floating clumps of earth and plant matter called tussocksthat impede traffic and reduce the lakes' size.

Chancey made environmentally conscious decisions on his own. But his approach to Tsala Apopka cuts to the heart of an ambitious effort to restore the state's seventh-largest lake system.

On May 9, representatives of more than 50 user groups and government entities will begin convening at the state Department of Forestry's Withlacoochee Training Center in Hernando County for an all-day, no-holds-barred discussion about the lake's future.

This will be the first opportunity (and last for a long time) for residents to express their views before their priority list _ the main goal of the session _ is sent to scientists from the University of Florida in Gainesville.

The county and the Southwest Florida Water Management District are providing $50,000 each to fund the effort.

"The first thing we're going to do is define the issues," said project supervisor Mark Hoyer, a scientific research manager for the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. Then, "We break them into small groups. We have a moderator and a recorder at each table. The moderators hopefully will be independent of any of the issues at hand.

"Through that process, we usually get people to agree more than they think they did."

That's only the first step.

"Once we have these issues where there are pros and cons, then we're going to get the scientific experts . . . to try to reach a consensus on what the best management procedures would likely be for that issue," he added.

A second meeting involving just the scientists will take place late this year or early next year. Eventually, about two years from the first meeting, a detailed framework will be ready for residents'comments, Hoyer said.

"Hopefully, down the road when these groups are developing ecosystem management plans . . . they will have a document to guide them," he said.

Diverse participants contacted in recent weeks said they are excited about the process and the promise it holds for the lake.

Ralph Hedgecoth, past president of the Citrus County Airboaters Alliance, a group of about 40 families, compared the effort to the Withlacoochee River ecosystem management groups. Also including user group and governmental representatives, the group developed a comprehensive plan suited to recreation and preservation.

"I felt like there was a lot accomplished out of that work group, and I think any citizens group we have is good, especially with the university involved," said Hedgecoth, who believes the river management process was somewhat biased in favor of environmentalists and Swiftmud.

"I think they probably will be an unbiased agency. They have nothing to win or lose by functioning in the capacity they will be in this group."

Jack Isaacs, a member of the environmental group TOO FAR, remembers how the idea grew out of a meeting two years ago with County Aquatic Services Director Tom Dick, who directs the lake's weed control program.

Dick, Isaacs said last week, asked TOO FAR to help form a weed ontrol committee, an unpopular move at the time. When he arrived at the first meeting, he recalled seeing a wide-ranging group of experts who soon began talking about the need for a comprehensive lake management plan.

Swiftmud prepared a 300-plus-page environmental assessment of Tsala Apopka in the summer of 1990. In it, the district carefully studied the lake's features and forces working against the ecosystem's health. Some suggestions were made, such as reviewing seasonal water levels and studying a possible drawdown, viewed by many as way to clean up and rejuvenate polluted lakebeds.

But Swiftmud's document fell short, Isaacs said, because it didn't reflect the desires of user groups and specify steps that needed to be taken to restore the system.

So Issacs rejects any thoughts that this lake management effort is simply a reflection of widespread mistrust of Swiftmud.

"It's not really a plan," Isaacs said. "What it is is a study of the lake. It's a very good study."

Participants expect to discuss a wide range of issues, all of them intertwined. They will address water levels, water quality, aquatic life, plant control and flood control.

Specifically, participants say, they intend to mention some of the following ideas:

Altering Swiftmud's water level control structures throughout Tsala Apopka so boaters can have unimpeded access amongthe various pools.

Changing the Army Corps of Engineers' water level management schedule so pool levels are dropped later in the year and left at a higher level than at present.

Creating an artificial drawdown.

Creating user group districts to satisfy their various recreational needs. For example, TOO FAR president Frank Robinson admits to not liking jet skiers, but the avid bass fisherman said he is willing to compromise for the good of the whole.

Swiftmud, DEP and the state Game and Freshwater Fish Commission also will send representatives.

When the project is completed, participants acknowledge their effort will still be missing a major piece of the puzzle if money is not available to fulfill their plans.

But already, important people are lining up behind them.

"It's probably going to cost all of us money," said state Rep. Nancy Argenziano (R-Dunnellon). "The alternative is let the waterways die, our tourism, our fishing, our homes. DEP (the Florida Department of Environmental Protection) has kind of dropped the ball . . . allowing the native and non-native plants to overtake our waterway. You'll see most of our waterways are shrinking. So the legislature is going take the bull by the horns. And of course, we need federal help, which is where U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman, (D- Dunnellon), might come in."

DEP spent more than $500,000 in recent years harvesting the lake to remove tussocks, although many still remain. And if the group recommends centralized sewersfor developments along the west side of the Hernando Pool, as Chancey said he will suggest, the plan will cost millions more.

"Weed control, sediment removal, it takes a lot of money," said DEP regional biologist Terry Sullivan, who oversees the weed control program.

And when the process is over, then what?

Lake management plants have power with local communities, assured Jess VanDyke, a DEP biologist who has designed a citizen action program similar to Hoyer's. His latest project is Lake Munson, where the management plan has resulted in retention basins and a drawdown to restore some of the lake's past vigor.

"A good long-term management plan is a good way to go to protect a lake, save money and protect recreational use," he said. "Lake Munson is still a basket case, and I can't wait to turn around and have people loving it. "

Isaacs called living on the Tsala Apopka "an honor," even though it doesn't easily yield the bass it once did, he said. But he's optimistic about the lake's future, and the reason is the lake management plan.

"It's just been a thing that's grown out of a need, and something wonderful is going to happen," he said.

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