Florida Drought may change land

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Drought may change land

Robert Sargent Jr. Sentinel Staff Writer

June 18, 2001

As Central Florida enters its fourth-straight year of hard drought, one question almost inevitably comes to mind: When will things return to normal?

Small lakes, ponds and canals shrink off the map each month. Forests are threatened like never before with extreme lack of moisture, wood-devouring bugs and fires. Even occasional rains seem to have little benefit in either case.

Concern now is that the many areas of parched landscape will never be the same again.

Biologists admit that such drastic changes to the environment could actually have some long-standing benefits. But some worry that dwindling resources may never return completely because of such heavy demands from Florida's growing population.

Some of the hardest effects can be seen in south Lake, where the former Clermont Chain of Lakes has separated into individual lakes dropping to record-low levels. Some have shrunk to mere mud holes.

State and local laws protecting the sensitive water bodies and wetland habitats have different effects when the water is gone. Some of the same protected areas are now striped with tire tracks from recreational vehicles -- signs of where residents have tread on the once-inaccessible real estate.

Canals with soft sand show deep ruts where trucks and other vehicles have passed through.

Biologists urge residents to use caution around former wetlands, which must support lake habitat again once the rains return.

"That's a good lesson," said John Benton, biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Another concern is that water bodies may take much longer to refill because of increased demands for lawn irrigation, relocated storm water and surrounding development.

"More demand may inhibit recovery," Benton said. "Using water for irrigation and golf courses can mean less water destined for the lake."

Benton said, however, that drought news isn't all bad.

More than a year ago, Fish and Wildlife proposed to manually drop the water level in Lake Griffin to dry up a large portion of the lake bottom, hardening the mucky soil and allowing aquatic plants to take root. The extra plants would create fish habitat and increase sport fishing on the large water body.

The drought essentially has done the same thing -- only more dramatically -- to other lakes.

"I think you'll see a lot more white sandy bottoms when the lakes return, favoring aquatic communities that people may find pleasing," Benton said.

Once the aquatic plants come back, Fish and Wildlife could be required to stock many of the lakes with lost varieties of fish.

Pine beetles a threat, too

The other victim of Central Florida's drought -- forests -- may also need a lot of help to recover.

Extreme lack of rain has weakened hundreds of thousands of acres of trees, leaving them more susceptible to damage. Among the most destructive sources are Southern pine beetles.

The Southern pine beetle can move faster than Florida's 30 other types of beetles. In fact,

Southern pine beetles can destroy up to 75 feet of forest a day.

Florida's lack of rain in the past three years has allowed the beetles to devastate thousands of acres across the northern part of the state. Hernando County, among Florida's driest areas, also has lost more than 4,000 acres of pine trees.

Other varieties of pine beetles can be found as far south as Lake Okeechobee. The Ips beetle, for example, has already claimed many small areas of Lake. Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area in Osceola has been hit by the Ips, which is a less-aggressive tree eater.

Recent surveys done from helicopters showed 20 spots of pine trees in northeast Lake near the Seminole State Forest that had brownish-yellow needles or no needles, signs that the trees have died from bug infestation.

Worse yet, the Ocala National Forest has 75 spots of beetle infestation, including 41 in Lake County. Damage varies from about 10 trees to thousands of trees.

The only recourse in many cases is to cut down infected trees and hundreds of others surrounding them.

Drought, fire: Bad mix

Yet another huge forest threat is fire.

Jim Murrian, director of stewardship with the Florida Nature Conservancy, said that brush fires have always played an essential role in helping forests by clearing out thick, dead plant material from the forest floor and promoting new tree growth.

But drought can turn most of those benefits into big losses.

Drought-stressed trees can endure fires as long as the blaze is not too intense. But the lack of rain afterward can prevent trees from taking in moisture and recovering within reasonable time.

In most cases, forestlands will begin growing new plants almost immediately after fires pass. But without rain, the rate of growth can be limited.

"There are preventative measures we can take in times like this," Murrian said.

During years of steady rain, forest officials can push for prescribed burns to eliminate much of the thick, dead brush that only serves to fuel fast-moving or intense fires during drought, he said. Replanting also is crucial is many areas.

Thick ground debris was blamed for 2,000 brush fires in 1998 that burned through more than a half-million acres. Fire damage destroyed thousands of trees and weakened many more -- leaving wide-open bare patches.

Technology at work

This summer, the U.S. Forest Service will test a new device that will help firefighters and biologists to measure better the severity of fires and to predict how much forest will be lost afterward.

The FireSAT system can provide up-to-the minute coordinates as well as the size and movement of a fire. Researchers can also measure the heat of the centermost part of a fire while it is burning -- previously unavailable data that can determine the severity of flames and just how much damage is likely to be inflicted on forests.

In short, it can help predict where forests will be lost weeks before the damage could otherwise be assessed.

Joel Levine, senior research scientist at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., said the ultimate goal is to equip FireSAT on an orbiting satellite to track fires around the world.

The Forest Service will try out the system this summer in New Mexico -- installing it into an aircraft that will fly over fire scenes. Soon, similar units may be used in Florida and other states as the technology develops.

Robert Sargent Jr. can be reached at 352-742-5909 or at rsargent@orlandosentinel.com.

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 18, 2001


As the water leaves the underground in Florida, I think we are going to see many houses falling into huge sink holes. I wonder if anyone is checking this out in Florida?

-- Judy/W (Judywhalen@aol.com), June 19, 2001.

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/lake/orl-lakesink- 06172001.story?coll=orl%2Dnews%2Dheadlines%2Dlake

Sinkhole takes bite out of highway

Robert Sargent Jr. Sentinel Staff Writer

June 18, 2001

LADY LAKE -- Road crews will work today to fill in a 9-foot-wide sinkhole that turned up along U.S. Highway 27/441 in The Villages.

The gaping hole under a northbound turn lane had not shown any activity since it was discovered during road construction Thursday, Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Homan said. Officials opted to leave it during the weekend before moving ahead with construction.

Homan said the sinkhole may have started long before road work began.

"It's probably an old one that had settled," he said.

Sinkholes are common in areas around The Villages, where they have swallowed up a large, man-made lake and some residents' lawns.

Officials say that many other sinkholes may have formed in north Lake and Sumter counties. But because most occur in rural, undeveloped areas, they often are not spotted until long afterward.

Robert Sargent Jr. can be reached at 352-742-5909 or at rsargent@orlandosentinel.com.

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 19, 2001.

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