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ORANGE LAKE UPDATE – August 2003

Orange Lake Boat Ramp

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.

Orange Lake Boat Ramp 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.

Orange Lake Boat Dock

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 idea.

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 years.

The beat goes on….

Please feel free to respond to any of the articles, and if you have news you wish to share, please email me at pgoldberg@goldenimages-photo-scuba.com .

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