Fate of famed Florida lakes uncertain

Two of Florida's most famous big bass lakes are facing an uncertain future.

 In the 1970s, Lake Jackson, a 4,000-acre lake near Tallahassee, was one of the country's most renowned trophy bass lakes. At times during the following two decades, the natural lake has enjoyed a big bass revival reminiscent of those glory days. But Jackson has a history of unexpectedly completely disappearing — getting sucked down into the Florida Aquifer via a pair of active sinkholes.

 The lake dried up in 1900, 1907, 1909, 1932, 1957, 1982 and 1999. Now, surprised state officials say Lake Jackson is again draining into the underground. They speculate that below-normal rainfall never fully refilled the aquifer below the lake since its last disappearance in 1999. And a lack of rain in recent months may have caused it to empty faster than it has been refilling.

 Rainfall averages in the Tallahassee area have been 10 to 18 inches below normal the past three years. As a result, Lake Jackson had only refilled partially before beginning to drop slowly in August. The water level began draining rapidly in December.

 That development may thwart the efforts of fisheries officials who stocked 200,000 bass fingerlings into the lake (at a cost of $50,000) in 2002 to rejuvenate its bass population that almost completely disappeared in 1999.

 Farther south, Orange Lake, a 12,700-acre lake near Gainesville, was producing impressive numbers of trophy class bass as recently as the early 1990s. A lingering drought that began in 1998, coupled with the reopening of a 2-acre sinkhole in the southern end of the lake, has dropped its water level to a few hundred acres of ankle-deep water.

 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission personnel took advantage of the low water to undertake a large-scale muck removal operation. But the results of that are in doubt because of a lack of rainfall and the widespread growth of undesirable weeds.

 Orange Lake's condition has deteriorated to the point that state officials are wondering if the lake's once renowned bass fishery can ever be revived, even if normal water levels return.

 "I'm not so sure that I have the resources to be able to manage it," said Ed Moyer, head of the commission's fisheries division. "The way things currently sit — unless we can develop some new technologies — I'm not so sure I have the ability to return the lake to the healthy levels it enjoyed 15 or 20 years back.

 "It's so low now, there's a massive build-up of organics all across the lake bottom. And it hasn't just gone Lake Jackson dry. It's gone Lake Jackson plus a foot of water dry. It's held moisture all across that basin, and there's a lot of vegetation coming in and consolidating semiaquatic terrestrially. And when water comes back strong, an awful lot of that (vegetation) is going to be up and moving. There's going to be a lot of tussock formation, and we're going to have to see where our productive areas are. We've done some small habitat enhancement along the edge, but we need water.

 "The fishery there is probably less than depleted. I'm sure there are some bass out there, but you could count them all. And when you have a lake that stays down for so long with a foot of water, you're put almost in a start-over position."