Big Orange is back

Published: Thursday, January 19, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 10:03 p.m.
Whatever damage may have been done to Florida as a whole, two years of unusual hurricane activity and heavy rainfall was just what the doctor ordered for Orange Lake.
Two years ago, due to extended drought, the lake was a mere shadow of its former self. Fishing docks were left high and dry. And the Alachua and Marion county commissioners were at loggerheads over a proposal to plug a sinkhole in an attempt to keep Orange Lake somewhat "full."
What a difference two years make. Now there is water under the docks again. The fish population is rebounding and the lake water level is at near record high. The state, properly, rejected the sinkhole plug option. But that doesn't matter, because the aquifer is filled again, and the lake isn't leaking all that much.
It turns out that periodic droughts and low water levels are as essential as rainfall to maintaining the long-range health and viability of Florida lakes.
As Joe Callahan, a senior staff writer for the Ocala Star-Banner, put it in a recent story: "Floods help bring nutrients flooding into the lake and that helps most fish to flourish. Droughts expose lake bottoms, which become sun-baked. That kills many plants that can choke a lake and deplete oxygen, causing fish kills."
Man-made attempts to artificially maintain lake levels through times of drought cause more harm than good. Scientists knew what they were talking about when they advised against plugging Orange Lake as though it were a giant swimming pool.
"Sometimes I think what I do is useless," Eric Nagid, a state biologist, told Callahan. "I say that because, as you can see, nature really can take care of itself."
The lesson of Orange Lake's rebound is really quite simple: At times it needs to be high and at other times it needs to be dry in order to flourish.

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