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  1. Life & Culture

Diggin' Florida Dirt: Has your pond become a dirty word?

Stirling Pond now has duck potato, in the foreground. It is a native aquatic plant that helps absorb excess fertilizers and attract insects with its blooms. On the shore beyond, blooming muhly and Fakahatchee grasses help minimize soil erosion.
Stirling Pond now has duck potato, in the foreground. It is a native aquatic plant that helps absorb excess fertilizers and attract insects with its blooms. On the shore beyond, blooming muhly and Fakahatchee grasses help minimize soil erosion.
Published Nov. 2, 2015

Highland Lakes is a Scots-inspired community of wee hills and lochs and street names like McGregor Drive. It should more rightfully be called Highland Stormwater Ponds, Don Mariani jokes.

The 684-acre neighborhood for ages 55-plus sidles up to Lake Tarpon and boasts 11 stormwater retention ponds — glorified drainage ditches that look like neatly manicured golf course water hazards.

Residents love the views they provide, but until last spring, no one made an effort to properly maintain them, says Don, a homeowners association officer and past president of the Highland Lakes Garden Club.

They didn't know they needed to.

Then newcomer Anna Marchand, a master gardener from New Hampshire, started asking about all the green stuff floating in Stirling Pond, behind her home. (It was algae.) And what, exactly, was that landscaping guy spraying in the water? (Herbicide perhaps?)

Her questions led Highland Lakes to team with Pinellas County's new Adopt-a-Pond program. Together, they assessed the pond's health, mapped a five-year improvement plan, and began implementing it in April.

Their work has already transformed Stirling, and makeovers have begun on three more ponds.

Anna is thrilled.

"I see a lot more birds, butterflies and dragonflies. We had an eagle, which means we're attracting animals that are supper for him. Even though this is a man-made pond, it's a respite."

Score one for Julie Vogel and Melissa Harrison, the environmental specialists who manage Adopt-a-Pond. Funded by a Pinellas County stormwater fee, the program launched in June 2014 and aims to improve the quality of water flowing into natural waterways in and around the county.

Julie and Melissa provide hands-on expertise, education and plants. Some ponds also qualify for a one-time cleanup by county-paid contractors, but otherwise participants provide the labor.

"The only trick is, the pond has to meet program requirements," Julie says. In Pinellas, those include being connected to the unincorporated county's stormwater system and having a pond that's not so far gone it can't be saved.

Stormwater retention ponds, a Florida staple, help avert flooding and filter out some of the pollutants — the oil, fertilizer and trash — that rains wash from pavement and lawns. Highland Lakes' ponds are part of a stormwater system that drains into Lake Tarpon and Upper Tampa Bay.

"These ponds require maintenance, just like your home and car," Julie says. "Most people we come into contact with believe they live on a spring-fed lake, not a stormwater system, and that it will take care of itself."

It won't. And too often, residents, homeowners associations and landscaping companies inadvertently hasten their ponds' demise. One common mistake: That golf course look.

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Surrounding a pond with turfgrass requires mowing to the water's edge, which blows in tons of grass clippings — pollution! Grass holds fertilizers that create algae blooms and speed the growth of invasive vegetation.

While unwanted plants swallow your pond, algae dies, sinks to the bottom and rots, a process that sucks out the oxygen — and the potential for fish and other marine wildlife.

Turf on the shore also speeds erosion of the pond's banks. Turfgrasses' shallow roots allow soil to wash away with every rain. Your pond grows bigger and your yard gets smaller.

The solution: At least a third of the pond's shoreline should have native or Florida-friendly plants, shrubs and trees, and pondwaters need native aquatic plants to suck up some of those fertilizers.

Stirling Pond's rehab included planting hundreds of plants, including native muhly and Fakahatchee grasses on the shore and duck potato in the water. Anna and her neighbors can get up to 200 more plants a year for the next four years through the program.

Don appreciates the new Scotland-Florida fusion landscape, and expects the homeowners association will save thousands of dollars on chemical sprays and other maintenance costs as more ponds get cleaned up.

More important, he says, the work promises a brighter future for residents' beloved Lake Tarpon. The picturesque 2,500-acre lake, a favorite of boaters and anglers from throughout the Tampa Bay area, is on the state's list of pollution-impaired waters.

"With communities that are age-restricted, they talk about green banana syndrome: Retirees won't buy green bananas because they don't know if they'll be around when the bananas get ripe," he says.

I like green bananas, he says.

"We should be building for the future, for other generations, other seniors, the grandchildren."

Contact Penny Carnathan at pcarnathan49@gmail.com; visit her blog, digginfloridadirt.com; join in the chat on Facebook, Diggin Florida Dirt; and follow @Diggin Penny.

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