ORANGE LAKE UPDATE – August 2003
When I wrote about Orange Lake 2 years ago, (see Article - Orange Lake's Last Gasp) we were in the midst of a 5-year drought.
This past year of 2002 –2003 has seen rainfall getting back to the more normal levels of
years past, with rain almost every day. This summer, we have even exceeded our normal
rainfall levels in many areas. For the past few months, we have watched Orange Lake’s
water level start to rise. At first, only airboats could use the lake, but now
fishermen are able to take their small boats, wind through the tall dead grasses, remnants of
a dry lakebed, and find open water. The public boat ramp at Heagy-Burry Park is now
open, and one or two fish camps on the west side of the lake are operating again. The
boat ramp at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Park is open, but it is being used mainly by
smaller jon boats and airboats – there is a lot of vegetation one needs to wind through to get
to the lake. Canal like trails, made by the boats, allow passage.
Orange Lake is punctuated by sinkholes – two very
large ones and several smaller sinkholes near the west side boat ramp – that plug and
unplug – often opening suddenly. They can drain the lake in days. Because the aquifer
levels had dropped so much during the drought, the weight of the lake allowed this to
happen in 2001. Now that rains have returned and the aquifer is refilling, the water
levels are rising again. This is a natural occurrence, very typical of many of Florida’s
waterways and lakes. (It is not natural that we suck water out of the aquifer, at a rate
that it cannot be replenished just to water our lawns – nor is it natural to divert lake
waters, as is being done). The cycle of drought and abundant rains, where the lake dries,
then fills, is actually beneficial to the aquatic life and the environmental health of the
lake in the long run.
That being said, humans cannot seem to “go with the flow”. It all becomes an economic
issue. For the fish camp owners, it means a loss of their livelihood, since fishermen
have to go elsewhere. It also trickles down to the motels, camps, boat suppliers, tackle
and bait shops. So the economy of the area goes dry along with the lake.
Fish camp owners have requested that a 30”wide pipe, about 25’ long, be installed in the
large sinkhole by Heagy Burry Park. The pipe would stick up, covered by a skimmer, and
would be set to stabilize the lake level at 56’ above sea level. Historically, the lake
levels are 58’ – but they feel this would be deep enough to allow some small boats to
use the lake about 80% of the time. There has also been talk of a berm around the
sinkhole. The concept is to regulate the lake’s waters. Right now, the St. John’s River
Water Management District is studying the issue for the permit request.
Already, Orange Lake’s waters are being controlled
in two other areas – diverting water to Payne’s Prairie. Adding another control won’t
improve the ecology of the lake. It won’t guarantee another sinkhole won’t open, making
this project worthless.
Haven’t we learned our lessons from the Everglades,
Lake Kissimmee and Rodman Dam? Whenever we adapt and improve an ecosystem for our own
economic gain, it only ruins that ecosystem for the future. A natural river or lake is
always healthier than one that has been tampered with by humans. And once we’ve screwed
it up, trying to fix the wrong to make it right is often not the answer – and may not
work as planned.
Even if the water management approves the permit,
Marion County would have to deal with Alachua County for its support (the lake and
sinkhole is in Alachua, the park is in Marion). Alachua County has so far opposed the
There has even been a suggestion that the state
and counties look into dredging around fish camps and boat ramps to allow boaters
access to the lake when the water goes down.
I don’t know what the answers are – I just know we
have interfered with our natural waterways too much and too often. We all have seen the
negative results of these practices.
Anyway, that is the status of the lake now, the
summer of 2003 – and right now the future of the lake is as uncertain as the weather.
NEWS UPDATE AUGUST 22, 2003
It appears the St. John’s Water Management District has
rejected the proposal to fix the Orange Lake sinkhole, and has recommended that the
district’s governing board do the same when the final vote is taken next month.
Other concerns for the proposed pipe include possible
flooding during heavy rains, water quality issues (especially during construction), and
the fact that the lake has been at a normal level almost 80% of the time over the last 55
The beat goes on….
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