Water Wars

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — With hurricanes Frances and Jeanne dumping 18 inches of rain on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, Lake Tohopekaliga not only refilled quicker than expected following a drawdown, but rose 1 1/2 feet above regulated high poolBecause water levels in the Kissimmee and other chains now are tightly regulated to accommodate shoreline development, such events can "stress the system" and flood back yards, according to fisheries biologist Marty Mann.But they also can benefit fish and wildlife.In this case, the storms assisted with a planned drawdown and habitat restoration project on Toho, as well as enhanced the downstream lakes.With Toho drawn down 3 feet earlier in the year, FWC personnel had scraped tons of muck from the bottom, reclaiming thousands of acres of shallow water habitat. Such work is required periodically on several Florida lakes since they no longer can "self cleanse" with fluctuating water levels.We already had enough rain to refill before the hurricanes," Mann said. "But the storms sent the water level even higher."That's the way Mother Nature cleaned the lakes before we stabilized them," the biologist added.Minimally on Toho, but more so on Kissimmee and other downstream lakes, high water and winds pushed "tussocks" and organic debris up on the banks, lessening the nutrient overload in the chain.Tussocks are dense mats of floating plants, sometimes even carrying woody vegetation. They break off from shorelines as organic matter fills in the shallows and plants grow thicker. These tussocks can become so abundant and dense that they eliminate more desirable habitat," said FWC's Dale Jones.When winds and high water remove tussocks, "the area vacated becomes available for colonization by more desirable plant species," he added.In addition, winds and waves thinned shoreline vegetation, thereby making more shallows accessible for both fish and fishermen, Mann said."We have wading birds now feeding in old wetlands that hadn't been filled in 30 years," he said.As anglers well know, all of those flooded shallows should allow for good survival of young bass hatched from the next spawn.We know the water level has to come down," Mann said. "What we're trying to decide now is how to do that and have the least impact on the good things that have happened."Yet another good thing is that rains brought by the hurricanes are recharging Florida's groundwater, and consequently benefiting lakes hard hit by the droughts of the late 1990s. Florida's limestone topography directly connects surface and groundwater, and demands on the latter during the dry years heightened damage to the former.A recharged aquifer also inhibits saltwater intrusion into coastal canals and streams.

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