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Once a "mud hole,' now a lake

Bob Hively looks out over the lake that borders his property and recalls what the lake bed used to be like.

"They used to run four-wheelers in there," Hively says. "We had deer walking across."

He shakes his head at the thought. The lake is now 20-something feet deep in parts. There is a hint of waves as an afternoon breeze sweeps across the acres of water.

True, Pasco Lake used to be a mere "mud hole" as Hively referred to it. Years of drought and pumping out of a nearby well field left the spot so dry that it was a lake in name only. That was eight or 10 years ago.

Then the water came back.

What followed the drought years was a six or seven-year sequence that included the rains of El Nino, the reduction of pumping out of the well field, a few good years of rainfall and, most recently, torrential rains due to hurricanes and tropical storms. Now Pasco Lake and the small lakes around it are full of water.

The contrast between then and now is stunning. Now there's water everywhere. In fact, the agencies that used to field complaints about how dry things were now are hearing that things are too wet.

"Yes, now we have been getting complaints about too much water," said Warren Hogg, evaluation and permitting manager for Tampa Bay Water. "You have to remember what it was like. You could walk across the Hillsborough River without getting your knees wet."

Now many people who live near rivers, lakes and wetlands are experiencing flooding.

The complaints generally are coming from areas where drainage is poor, or where homes were built on high and dry land during the drought.

The complaints are not coming from the lakefront homeowners who fought for years to restore their lakes. The homeowners are happy to have their lakes and wetlands full of water again.

But complacent would not be the word to describe them. Wary is a better word.

"We've had the opposite ends of the spectrum, dry then, now flooding," said Octavio Blanco, a veterinarian from Odessa who owns 100 acres _ nearly half is wetlands _ near State Road 54 and the Suncoast Parkway. "Does this mean the wetlands are wet now and the lakes have water? Sure. Does that mean we're free of water concerns? Absolutely not."

For years landowners complained that their lakes and wetlands were losing water. The drought was one of the reasons. But they also suspected that the pumping of millions of gallons of water out of the area well fields was sucking them dry.

For years homeowners and landowners couldn't get anyone to do anything about it.

After years of high drama and persistent conflict, the Tampa Bay area leaders agreed to rethink the way decisions were made about the pumping, the distribution and the sharing of water for the entire region. And the decision was made to cut back on pumping.

At the Cross Bar well field, there had been 30-million gallons pumped out each day to Pinellas County. Now the average daily pumping is below 10-million gallons.

Gradual as it has been, the recovery of the lakes and wetlands has been a thing to behold.

Water levels in large lakes have risen several feet in that time. Lakes that had disappeared, and wetlands that were dry, now hold plenty of water.

"This is the first time I've seen the water go over the spillway (sending water westward under a bridge at U.S. 41) in 19 years," said Hively, who has lived in the area for 30 years. Still Hively doesn't quite believe the water will remain.

For one thing, his Pasco Lake still is not back to normal. There are virtually no fish where fish used to be plentiful. (He swears he caught a 10-pound bass in the lake years ago.) Tree tops poke out of the lake. They grew during the dry years, and though the water has nearly covered them up, they make boating treacherous.

His lake, Pasco Lake, has a floor of sand, so water comes and goes very easily. For a time, the area water authority (then known as the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority), fed water to the lake and several nearby lakes. The process was called augmentation. That, along with increased rainfall and decreased pumping out of the Cross Bar well field, appears to have done the trick.

Still, when Hively talks about the plentiful water, he ends his sentences with phrases like "for now," and "if it lasts."

Blanco fears that when the rainy season ends, his wetlands will dry up again. It happened after El Nino, he recalled. The area had some of the driest and most fire-prone years on record. And now, Blanco pointed out, there are more homes and more demand on water supplies.

"It's wet now, but let's say it dries out again like it did in 1998," Blanco said. "I would hate for people to get the idea that it's never going to be a problem again just because it's wet today."

THEN: This aerial photo shows a dry Lake Loyce in May 1994. For years, landowners in the area complained lakes and wetlands were losing water due to drought and over pumping of well fields.

THEN: Winding Creek resident Steve Monsees stands beside a dock in the dry bed of Lake Loyce, one of five in the subdivision that were completely dry in 1994. Words painted on the dock mark past water levels.

NOW: Heavy rains and cutbacks in well field pumping have helped Lake Loyce recover. Claude George built this backyard dock in 2001. He says this hurricane season has raised the water level by at least a foot. Some Pasco residents are experiencing flooding in homes considered high and dry within the last decade.

Deeper lakes

Below are the monthly average water levels for selected lakes in Pasco County. The figures refer to the number of feet the water is above sea level.

Crews Lake

1994: 48.45

2004: 52.83

Lake Loyce

1994: 50.34

2004: 60.06

Moon Lake

1994: 36.62

2004: 40.63

Lake Pasadena

1994: 84.16

2004: 92.32