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Lakes alive

With the help of their neighbors, John and Siggi McQuaid turned a stagnant, algae-choked retention pond in their back yard into a haven for wildlife and a showplace for visitors.

Today, the couple look out on a carpet of lush grass leading down to a dock, where one might see an occasional otter frolicking in the water.

"This is our entertainment," Siggi McQuaid said, surveying her suburban oasis. "Friends visit from Germany and think this is paradise."

But there was a time when Twelve Oaks Lake was more of a liability than scenery.

"Fish were gulping for air," John McQuaid said, recalling nearly five years ago when the 10-acre pond was at its worst. "We had an algae bloom and almost lost the lake."

The Twelve Oaks community has been dealing with a problem that many other neighborhoods have faced, or soon will:

When a developer creates a retention pond that's not connected to natural creeks, canals or springs, how do you keep the thing healthy?

Twelve Oaks, with 950 homes, was built ahead of its time, in the 1970s.

It wasn't until the early 1980s that retention ponds became part and parcel of planned communities built in Florida. That's when the state passed laws requiring developers to include these ponds to handle stormwater runoff.

Making the most of these new requirements, developers turned retention ponds into amenities, offering homesites with "waterfront" views. Others made the ponds part of common areas for all residents to enjoy.

But these waterfront extras can have a downside.

After a few decades, retention ponds not connected to natural waterways begin to die. Grass clippings, fertilizer and other byproducts of suburban living choke off the wildlife.

With no movement or influx of freshwater, "you have disgusting scum on top of the pond and you have a fish kill," said Carlo Fernandez, chief environmental scientist with Hillsborough County's stormwater section.

In Twelve Oaks, the neighbors mobilized. They manned boats and sprayed the lake with chemicals. They did it again the next year. After two years of homemade remedies that provided only minimal relief, they hired American Ecosystems Inc., an aquatic management company in St. Petersburg.

The company sprayed professional-strength chemicals on the pond to kill off harmful vegetation such as hydrilla, algae and torpedo grass. Next, it installed a system that pumps air into the lake to help prevent fish kills and to cut back on pesky problems like algae blooms.

"The lake was turned around just in the nick of time," said Michael Fenimore, whose house also backs up to the pond.

The aeration system works a bit like the pump in a fish tank. The pumping allowed a minor algae bloom. "It doesn't stop things from happening but controls them," John McQuaid said. "We've reduced the amount of chemicals and want to get back to natural and not use them at all."

Hillsborough County tries to help neighborhoods keep their lakes and ponds healthy through a variety of ways, including a lake management program. Under that plan, neighbors collect water samples from their lakes and ponds, and the county runs tests on the samples at no charge.

"We're looking for basic nutrients, clarity and quality," said Fernandez, the stormwater environmental scientist.

Adopt A Pond is another county program aimed at helping homeowners keep natural and artificial lakes healthy. Homeowners get involved with pond cleanup and the county supplies new vegetation. Residents plant the new foliage and the county provides technical advice.

"The program has helped the quality of little ponds," Fernandez said. "It's not just aesthetic. It also enhances wildlife."

Neighborhoods, though, are in charge of their own destinies.

If they want to spend the money to pay for aeration technology, they can. Twelve Oaks residents, for example, pay roughly $4,000 a year through a taxing district to maintain their two retention ponds.

Many neighborhoods, however, opt not to pay for aeration.

"Our ponds are doing fine," said Tom Jones, property manager at Plantation of Carrollwood. "Water flows through them, and with the rain they're doing fine."

Plantation, built in 1976, has retention ponds that are part of the county's stormwater system. They flow into Channel G and Brushy Creek.

Jones said the ponds suffer occasional algae blooms, but the homeowners association pays for a lake maintenance program.

"A contractor sprays for algae and growth," Jones said. But "during storms we do have to re-establish our banks because of erosion."

Carrollwood Village, which has 22 artificial lakes, also relies on chemicals to keep most of its retention ponds clean.

"It's expensive to put in aeration devices in that many areas," said Dan Ruskiewicz, property manager. "You have to get electrical hookups to all those, plus aeration devices don't necessarily take care of algae."

In Northdale, the tax district maintains roughly eight retention ponds and keeps them clean with chemicals.

"We do not use aeration, and our ponds look very good," said Rick Pitrowski, Northdale property manager. He agreed that aeration benefits ponds, but said a lot "depends on the size of the aeration device and the size of the pond."

Few bodies of water in northwest Hillsborough are larger than Egypt Lake, a 70-acre lake near N Dale Mabry Highway and Lambright Avenue.

About 10 years ago the Egypt Lake Homeowners Association installed an aeration system to help prevent fish kills.

Chris Thayer, its president, said the method worked well but the cost of keeping it running has been prohibitive.

"It's a big obstacle because we need seven units," Thayer said. "We haven't been able to collect the money and the county won't do it."

That's because the county looks for sustainability in improving water quality, Fernandez said.

"When you start an aeration system, you're creating another dependency," Fernandez said. "You need to provide electricity and make sure the pumps are working."

American Ecosystem's Kevin Youngberg, however, said it would be healthier for everyone to rely less on chemicals and more on natural solutions.

"Doesn't anybody believe in ecology anymore?" he wondered.

Jackie Ripley can be reached at (813) 269-5308 or