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Rebuilding Wetlands Focus of Plan for Regulating Lake Ontario Water Levels


Following 16 years and $20 million in studies, the United States and Canada, via the International Joint Commission, have established a new strategy for regulating Lake Ontario water levels, with the focus on rebuilding wetlands to benefit fish and wildlife. Not surprisingly, "sportsmen were among the loudest proponents of Plan 2014," the Syracuse Post-Standard said in an editorial endorsing the action.

Essentially, the plan calls for a return to more natural highs and lows that the lake experienced before the Moses-Saunders Dam was built on the St. Lawrence River in 1958. From year to year, the lake could fluctuate as much as 8 feet.

"It is this process that maintains the diversity of wetland plant communities, and also the diversity of habitat for a whole variety of fish and wildlife species," said Doug Wilcox of the College at Brockport, State University of New York.

With the dam in place, the goal was to moderate levels to facilitate shipping and hydropower, with shoreline property owners also benefiting from more stable water. But it had unintended consequences.

Many native plants among the fishery's 64,000 acres of coastal wetlands died, and invasive cattails flourished. The lake lost both habitat and nutrient filters that enhanced water quality. Fish and wildlife populations declined.

Proponents of the plan insist that it will allow for a nature-based fluctuation without materially changing the current range of high and low water. In doing so, it will restore fish and wildlife populations, which will boost outdoor recreation, including fishing, boating, and ecotourism. At the same time, they say, it also will increase hydropower production and aid the shipping industry.

Opponents, meanwhile, mostly are home owners, especially on the south shore, who fear greater fluctuation will damage or destroy properties.

IJC Chair Lana Pollack said that members understand such concerns, but believes that Plan 2014 is the best possible compromise.

"It's hard to give 100 percent to any particular interest when there are competing interests involved," she said.


Apopka Fishery Improves With Removal of Gizzard Shad, Bass Stocking


The water in Lake Apopka remains pea-soup green, a sign that long-term restoration of the once world-class fishery still has a ways to go. But water quality is improving, as evidenced by the fact that Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation felt confident enough to stock one million largemouth bass there last fall (See related article below.)  

One of the reasons that water quality is improving is the commercial harvest of gizzard shad, a joint venture by the St. Johns Water Management District (SJWMD) and local businesses. Shad feed on algae, which thrives in the lake because of its high nutrient load and, as they do, they absorb nitrogen and phosphorus. If they were left in the lake, water quality wouldn't get any better, as the forage fish simply recycled the nutrients with their wastes. Additionally, the fish stir up the sediment as they feed, further preventing penetration of sunlight, which is necessary for beneficial plants to grow.

But take out a million pounds of shad a year and you also remove 8,000 pounds of phosphorus. And that's just what the program has been doing since 1993, with the most recent harvest season ending in January.

"The lake has really rebounded remarkably," said Dean Dobberfuhl, a SJWMD bureau chief. "In terms of a restoration technique, it's very cheap."

The district estimates that nearly 25 million pounds of gizzard shad have been removed from Lake Apopka since the early 1990s. Combined with other efforts, including restoration of wetlands for filtering, the program has reduced nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the lake by more than half.

And as the shad are removed, plants such as eel grass are returning. Submerged plants were nonexistent in the late 1990s, but covered 48 acres by 2015, according to SJWMD. That's not much for a healthy 31,000-acre natural lake. But it's great news for Apopka, which was a world-class fishery before its demise decades ago, caused mostly by runoff pollution from farms established in what was once about 20,000 acres of wetlands along the lake's north shore.

Additionally, nearby towns contributed to the problem by discharging wastewater into the lake, as did citrus processing plants.

*     *     *     *

With recent stocking of one million largemouth bass, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) continues its decades long efforts to restore Lake Apopka as a sport fishery.

"The FWC’s Richloam Fish Hatchery staff spawned the genetically pure Florida largemouth bass at two separate times a year, instead of just once, specifically for Lake Apopka," the agency said.

"Pure Florida largemouth bass tend to grow bigger than other species found in other parts of the country. Stocking the lake earlier than usual ensures that larger bass are going into the lake, which allows them a better chance of survival, as there is a more abundant food source available."

Fifty years ago, the 31,000-acre lake was considered one of the nation's best bass fisheries. But municipal and agricultural pollution, along with muck farming that destroyed much of the lake's filtering system, sent it into steep decline.  Still today, it has a large organic sediment layer, dense algae blooms, and limited plant growth.

But significant strides have been made to improve water quality, including a marsh flow-way system, restoration of wetlands, and a commercial gizzard shad harvest program  that helps limit re-suspension of phosphorus from bottom sediments. Additionally, the Florida Legislature appropriated $4.8 million in 2012 for re-establishing beneficial aquatic plants and placing brush attractors, as well as dredging of access channels and bank fishing sites.

“It’s going to be important to get the fishery back. That was the original fame of Apopka,” said Jim Thomas, a member of Friends of Lake Apopka (FOLA). “I used to come here when I was 10 years old to fish in Lake Apopka. It’s been pretty amazing to remember how great it was and then see how terrible it was."

Since the early 1990s, FOLA has been dedicated to educating the public about Apopka's plight and generating support for restoration and conservation of Florida's third largest lake.


Pollution Is Not Good, But Neither was Obama Clean Water Rule

Capt. Steve Chaconas with Potomac River bass

President Trump recently signed an Executive Order to roll back Obama's  2015 "clean water rule," which greatly expanded federal authority over public and private waters. Below is my 2014 analysis of the proposal, before it was enacted by executive fiat.

 *     *     *     *

We all live downstream.

Thus, pollution poses an exponential threat to our waters and our fisheries. And in a perfect world, no one would pollute.

But we don’t live in a perfect world.

As a consequence, we pollute, sometimes unintentionally and sometimes flagrantly. Along the Potomac River, signs once warned that just touching the water could be hazardous to human health. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it caught fire. And Lake Erie was known as a “dead sea.” The list of waters degraded and almost destroyed by pollution is a long and shameful one.

We, however, also have learned to clean up after ourselves, prompted by the federal Clean Water Act of1972. Erie now is one of the nation’s most productive fisheries. The Potomac is nationally known for its bass fishing. And the Cuyahoga, a river once devoid of fish, now is home to 44 species. The list of waters enhanced and restored is a long and hopeful one, and we arguably do more to protect our aquatic resources than any other country in the world.

That doesn’t mean that we’ve done as much as we can or should do to minimize pollution. But neither are we living in a time when rivers are catching on fire and as much needs to be done or even can be done, for that matter.

But that doesn’t keep some from trying, especially those who believe that more big government is the solution to our imperfections. That’s why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to expand the definition of ‘waters of the United States’ to include water on private property.

Additionally, under new proposals, jurisdiction would extend to streams regardless of their size or how frequently they flow, as well as to ditches, gullies, and just about any low spot where moisture collects on a seasonal basis.

And that’s why the move is being heartily endorsed by environmental groups, who argue that court rulings have weakened the CWA.

“It’s taking the way the Clean Water Act works back, so that it works the way water works in the real world,” said Bob Wendelgass of Clean Water Action.

But just how far do you allow the federal government to intrude on the rights of private property owners? Those rights are a cornerstone of who we are as a nation and why so many from all over the world want to live here.

“The EPA’s draft water rule is a massive power grab of private property across the U.S,” said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith from Texas. “This could be the largest expansion of EPA regulatory authority ever.

“If the draft rule is approved, it would allow the EPA to regulate virtually every body of water in the United States, including private and public lakes, ponds, and streams.”

While I understand and even sympathize with the environmental side of this argument, I do not support such an expansion of power using regulations written by anonymous, unelected bureaucrats. Such decisions should be left up to Congress, which represents the people.

Additionally, many who want to impose ever more strict environmental regulations upon industries, agriculture, municipalities, and now private property owners do so with unrealistic expectations. In their never-ending quest for perfection, they want to reduce pollution limits to levels that can’t even be measured.

“These folks live in la-la land,” one water quality expert told me. “If you attack these things (regulations) as unrealistic, you are evil.

“What I’d really like to see is for them to sustain themselves on their own little happy ¼-acre subdivision lot. I’d be willing to bet every single one of them has a nice, cozy temperature-controlled house, pantry full of food, a sink with a spigot full of safe drinking water and a shower and toilet that take away all that nasty that they just can’t think about, much less live with, while they point fingers at everyone else.”

So . . . would I like to see an end to all pollution?  Absolutely. After all, we all live downstream.

But I believe that’s an unrealistic expectation, considering our prevalence and dominance as a species on this planet. Let’s keep trying to reduce our pollution footprint, but let’s do so with consent of the governed and with realistic standards, not those imposed by anonymous bureaucrats who live in “la-la land.”


Okeechobee Bass Fishery Thrives as Debate Rages About Discharges

Debate rages about what to do with excess water from Lake Okeechobee. Laden with nutrients, it feeds algae blooms and kills fish when discharged by the Corps of Engineers into coastal waters on both sides of southern Florida

But what about bass in the Big O? They're an integral part of a recreational fishery worth about $49 million to counties surrounding the 448,000-acre lake that is half the size of the state of Rhode Island.

"This is an iconic fishery, and yet all you hear about are the massive discharges and the algae blooms. You don't hear about the lake itself, other than it is the source," said Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. National Conservation Director.

Not to worry.

"They're doing great," said Andrea Dominguez, fisheries biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).  "We're doing a survey now (early December) and are seeing a lot of fish over 16 inches, and a couple above 24.

"People are happy. They're catching fish, especially on the north end of the lake," she added. "Bass are healthy and growing."

But sadly for coastal fisheries and residents alike, the lake's eutrophic water must be channeled east and west when it rises too high, both to keep the 70-year-old dyke from being breached and prevent drowning of the marshes, which are key not just for the health of the fishery, but the entire Okeechobee ecosystem. Before the dyke was built and the Big O altered from a natural lake to a hybrid impoundment, high water flowed south. It replenished the Everglades, which absorbed most of the nutrients, before sending the water on to vitalize Florida Bay.

The dyke was built to protect towns and farms south of the lake, following major hurricanes that struck South Florida during the 1920s, causing massive flooding and killing nearly 2,000. Additionally, the Corps installed water control structures to direct water via canals into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

With the lake walled off, much of the land around it was converted to agricultural use, with dairy farms and beef cattle ranching to the north and sugar cane and vegetable farming to the south. These added to the nutrient load of nitrogen and phosphorus already flowing into the Big O from the Kissimmee River watershed and developed areas to the north.

For decades runoff pollution has been a concern, both for the lake and the estuaries. But exceptionally high water, starting in January, forced heavier and more frequent discharges than normal, decimating the estuaries and garnering most of the headlines. In fact, an algae bloom covered 33 square miles  in the southern portion of the lake during May, no doubt nourished by that same high water.

Algae blooms occur regularly in many of Florida's southern freshwater fisheries, but usually they appear later in the year, when the water is warmer. "They are very difficult to predict," said Terrie Bates of the South Florida Water Management District. "They move with the wind. They can form and dissipate in a week's time."  

Fortunately, the Big O has proven resilient, thanks to its abundant aquatic vegetation, especially the fringe of bulrush on the lakeward side. It not only provides beneficial habitat directly, but helps dissipate wind and wave energy, allowing eel grass, spike rush, and pepper grass to grow in interior areas of the marsh.

And thanks to Corps discharges of dangerously high water.

"Excessive stages destroy this outer bulrush wall, which is then followed by damage to the interior marsh," said Amber Nabors, FWC's communications and marketing manager.  

"FWC puts high priority on efforts to maintain a healthy diversity, abundance, and distribution of aquatic vegetation in the lake to support the abundant fish and wildlife resources there.  We do this with both direct management actions and by closely working with partner agencies to influence water level management to include fish and wildlife benefits."

Those management actions include scraping, planting, and targeted herbicide treatments, as well as occasional burnings.

"We want the correct plants," said Dominguez. "We don't want stands of cattails to get too big, because we want the bulrush to grow."

Water hyacinths and water lettuce also are especially problematic because they grow so quickly and block waterways. The latter can be a problem both for navigation and for sustaining flow, which is critical for maintaining water quality.

High water and blocked flow are an especially lethal combination, as plants die and decompose, burning up dissolved oxygen in the water and releasing a "sewer gas" smell into the air. "It happens sometimes back in the marshes," said Sam Griffin, who grew up on the lake and guided for decades there. "When it does, the fish go around it to get back in the marshes to spawn."

Dominquez added, "We want to keep the waterways clear and we don't want just one plant (species). We want diversity, not monoculture."

Ideally, she explained, fall water levels will be high enough to allow bass to migrate back into the marsh. From winter into spring, they will recede, with stability during the summer, when fish can move out into the lake for refuge in cooler water if necessary.

Of course, storms and heavy rains in 2016 forced the Corps to intercede more than it does during a typical year. "Without those discharges, the vegetation would have been smothered," the biologist added.

Knowing the importance of Okeechobee's sport fishery and its ecosystem in general, FWC biologists talk weekly with the Corps, providing their opinions on what's best in terms of water levels, Dominguez explained. "We advocate if we see a need."

Nabors added, "FWC doesn’t only manage for fish, but also waterfowl, wading birds, alligators, and other species."

Additionally, FWC has an intra-agency team working on Okeechobee/Everglades issues, as the ecological disasters on both coasts during 2016 forced both federal and state officials to accelerate the search for a solution to the lake's high water. Should flow be restored to the south? Should reservoirs be built north or south of the lake to store excess water?

What can be done to lessen the nutrient load from agriculture and upstream development?

The target phosphorus level for Okeechobee is 105 metric tons annually. In 2015, it was 450. About 37 percent of that came from land that drains into the Kissimmee River, according to the South Florida Water Management District. Sources include citrus groves, dairy farms, and neighborhoods as far north as the Orlando suburbs.

Whatever the solution, FWC intends to make certain that it will not negatively impact the Big O and its world-class bass fishery.

"All of the efforts in Everglades restoration, including reservoirs, water management north of the lake, discharges, and moving more water south, should ultimately allow flexibility and better management of the lake for ecological benefits, including sportfish management," said Nabors. 

(This article appeared originally in Bassmaster Magazine.)


Angler Whitmire Helps Save Lifes With Clean Water

When they're on the weigh-in stage, some tournament anglers become comedians.

Not Texan Bruce Whitmire. He makes people cry.

But it's for a good cause.

"Every time I fish, I tell my story," said Whitmire, who competes in the Open circuit. "I see parents with children and they get tears in their eyes when I tell them that children in Africa must walk a mile to a mud hole to get water, water that is supposed to bring life but often brings death and disease.

"They're really moved by what is going on," he added. "The result has been really positive too. People have gotten onboard."

What they've gotten on board with is supporting Whitmire's Global Water Partners (WGP), a charitable organization that digs wells in Africa. Since he founded it in 2009, WGP has provided clean water for 300,000 people. 

"Every one of us has a gift that makes the picture complete," said the father of five and grandfather of nine. "This is where I fit--- lovin' on people and helping them have a better life."

Actually, the U.S. Air Force veteran started doing that long before 2009. In 1996, he and his family moved to Nairobi, Kenya, for two years, for evangelism and to help communities dig wells. He estimated that he's helped 12 million gain access to clean water since then.

"At a slum in Nairobi, the second largest slum in Africa, we dug a well that provides water for more than a million people," he said. "It's 1,450 feet deep and through solid granite."

Living in a country so blessed  with clean, safe drinking water, as well as abundant bass fisheries, most of those attending Open weigh-ins have no idea of the profound need  in Africa and much of the rest of the world. But Whitmire puts it into perspective. He points out that an estimated two billion people lack access and every 15 seconds a child dies, either because of thirst or because of disease contracted by drinking polluted water.

"In Liberia, children aren't even named until after their fifth birthday," the Texas angler said. "That's because their parents don't expect them to survive. Instead, they call them the day of the week that they were born."

In addition, to digging wells, GWP teams also teach health and hygiene and the importance of good sanitation, in what Whitmire termed "village transformations."

After a well is dug, people dance, sing, and shout, he added, "because they understand what clean water means."

"And when we go back six months later, we see healthy children, who are no longer riddled with disease and diarrhea and no longer have distended bellies."

Whitmore once made 10 trips a year to Africa. Today, he trains and employs crews, while focusing most of his energy on fund raising.

Since 2009, WGP has received more than $2 million, with bass fishing as one of the most important ways for Whitmire to tell its story.

"Your donation can help us save lives and change destinies," he said.