By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
Robert Freeman, a resident of Cherry Lake Circle since 1988, is worried about the health of one of Madison County’s biggest natural assets: Cherry Lake.
The 4-H Camp has been located there for decades, as has the county’s Cherry Lake Beach that many residents and visitors enjoy. There is also the American Legion Hall Post #224, and Sim’s Boating Club. Around the edges of much of the lake, dozens and dozens of homes face the waterfront, older homes alongside brand-new luxury homes, nearly all of them with their own docks or boat ramps.
According to the Madison County website, http://madisonfl.org/water_sports.php, the 600-acre lake offers opportunities for boating, fishing, sailing, canoeing, knee-boarding, swimming and quality fishing, things that Freeman fears will be threatened if nothing is done about the lake’s current condition.
On the Monday after the 4th of July weekend, one of the first things Freeman points out along the edge of the lake are the strings and mats of green algae along the bottom of the shallow area near the water’s edge. The non-native algae (Lyngbya) is a recurring problem every summer, as soon as the water heats up, and it has the effect of turning the water a soupy green color, with green, hairy-looking strands and tangled mats along the bottom of shallow areas – the first sign of an “algae turnover” that results when the green mats on the bottom produce enough gases to cause them to float on the surface.
There are more than 60 types of Lyngbya, most of which pose little problem, but the type known as “giant Lyngbya,” a much larger, faster-growing algae, began appearing in southeastern lakes and ponds in the 1970s. Pollution from excess nutrients in runoff from the surrounding land accelerates the problem. In a worst-case scenario of a heavy Lyngbya infestation, in water already loaded with excess nutrients, the algae takes over, depleting the water of food and oxygen required for other aquatic populations. When the aquatic animal life dies off, the algae and other plant life remains, a process known a “eutrophication.” When the fish die, the lake dies.
What happens when a lake “dies” is illustrated by Lake Erie in the 1960s, the shallowest and warmest of the five Great Lakes. For decades, tons of pollutants/excess nutrients had filled the water, until eutrophication claimed Lake Erie. Excessive algae became the dominant plant species, covering beaches in slimy moss and killing off native aquatic species by soaking up all of the oxygen. As a result, containing only algae and other plant life, but no animal life to speak of in the oxygen-starved water, Lake Erie was declared “dead.”
This is what Freeman fears might eventually happen to Cherry Lake, although on a much smaller scale, if steps are not taken now to slow down, halt, or reverse this condition. There is no major industry or urban center to deal with, and there are no agricultural fields right up next to the lake, although further out, the rural area surrounding it is mostly agricultural. Right at the water’s edge, however, there are camping facilities and many private homes, all on septic tanks, mostly on property that slopes down toward the water. Many of these homes are luxury vacation homes like the one under construction right next to the American Legion Hall, where Freeman points out the first signs of algae growth along the dock.
“If the lake dies, all these nice homes won’t be worth a dime,” he says, recalling a period of time in either the late 80s or early 90s, when the lake had to be closed to swimming due to the water quality.
People who live around the lake should be concerned about its health, he believes, if only for the sake of protecting their investments. The County of Madison also has a major investment in its public beach/boat ramp facility.
He has been writing numerous letters to every department or agency he can think of, including the Suwannee River Water Management District, the University of Florida (which owns the 4-H camping facility), the Governor’s Office and the Fresh Water Fish Commission.
Last month, he invited a fishery biologist from the Fresh Water Fish Commission to come out to Cherry Lake and see what was going on. After the visit, both the biologist and Freeman agreed that the lake had issues with algae, although they differ in their assessment of what is the biggest contributing factor.
Freeman points to a drainage ditch dug in the 1940s to power a grist mill. The mill is now gone, but the ditch remains, and he believes it is draining off too much water from the lake, keeping water levels artificially low. The lowered water levels mean that the shallow water near the edge is shallower and heats up faster in the summer, and he also believes it reduces or eliminates wetlands around the edges of the lake that filter out the kind of nutrients that fuel algae growth. He would like to see the ditch plugged and back-filled, with a proper spillway installed to maintain slightly higher water levels on the lake, especially since erosion over the course of many years means that the drainage ditch has deepened itself. Freeman has noticed it getting a little deeper in just the past five years or so that he has been watching it. After a heavy rain, he says, the volume of water rushing through the ditch is a loud roar, but every time someone tries to fill or plug the ditch, someone else comes along and unplugs it. Even beaver dams get ripped out.
He would like to see the ditch filled in and a proper spillway installed instead, keeping the lake at a slightly higher level. Some of the residents even had a petition going at a couple of area stores, until the petition disappeared.
“People go to raising Cain because the water would be over their docks,” he says, maintaining that the docks were built too low to begin with, as indicated by the water marks and the treeline.
The biologist disagreed that the ditch is0 the problem, believing that the water probably naturally drained in that direction many years ago, which was why the ditch and the grist mill were located there. The ditch has now been there so long, he believes the lake has adapted to it. At the time of his inspection, the water level in the ditch was less than a foot deep, and not draining off enough water to harm the lake; in his opinion, it functions as more of a “pop-off” drainage ditch now. Further, maintaining a lake at “full-pool” was not good lake management because lakes naturally go through a cycle of high and low water levels, with lake bottoms getting a chance to dry out and “rejuvenate” during low water levels, all the better to support aquatic life when the water returns.
Freeman acknowledges that the biologist disagrees about the ditch being the problem. “But this isn’t a natural cycle,” he says, because the ditch keeps the level artificially low. However, he has backed off a little on the petition since the biologist says the lake has much bigger problems.
From the biologist’s standpoint, the lake is a classic example of a lot of people wanting to live next to a pleasant body of water and placing too much stress on it from nutrient rich-runoff, either because they don’t pay enough attention to maintaining properly functioning septic systems, or they may not be all that careful about what kind/how much fertilizer is used on their lawns.
According to the biologist, all bodies of water “age” naturally as organic matter gradually accumulates and decomposes over very, very, very long periods of time, but when human intervention increases nutrient-rich runoff, it will greatly accelerate that aging process. It will be difficult to reverse Cherry Lake’s “aging” process, because those excess nutrients have been there so long, but it could be slowed down significantly if several issues were addressed with a public education campaign, perhaps by forming a “Friends of Cherry Lake” type of organization, to help disseminate information regarding fertilizer use and the importance of properly functioning septic systems.
Organic fertilizers like grass clippings are preferable, but if chemical fertilizers are used, they should not contain phosphorus (those with “zero” in the middle; for example, 16-0-16). Pay strict attention to application rates per square foot of lawn. Don’t use an entire bag that treats 10,000 square feet on an area of grass that is only 8,000 square feet – sprinkle sparingly and save the rest, because the grass can only absorb so much. Spread too much, and the excess washes into the lake.
Septic tanks should be pumped out every five years; drain fields need to be replaced or refurbished every 20-25 years. It will take everybody on the lake agreeing to do this, and Freeman acknowledges that he has noticed a smell whenever he is around one of the large-use facilities whenever a lot of people are there.
The biologist cited other issues like the Island Apple snail that somehow was imported into the lake. The snails have a voracious appetite for the grasses and other plant life that help purify the water. They don’t seem to be a problem now, but their presence needs to be monitored. Other imported species like the small Asian clams are common to many other lakes, and don’t appear to cause much harm.
Freeman isn’t quite sure how to go about conducting the massive public education campaign, but he believes it might help, even though some of the homeowners don’t live at the lake year-round.
He would like to have the biologist come back out to the lake and compare current conditions with his first visit on June 9, when the water temperature was 87 degrees and the oxygen level was 7.2 ppm (considered excellent – a 103 percent saturation rate). The algae has started blooming now, the water is turning that soupy green color, and Freeman believes it is even warmer, describing it as “like jumping into a bathtub full of warm water.”
He is also planning to contact two other recommended regional experts the biologist recommended, to see what they have to suggest.
The story of Lake Erie may offer some hope. A lake full of heavy metals and other contaminants, with a smell that repelled tourists and residents alike, the lake benefitted from massive public concern and the Great Lakes Water Management Quality Agreement signed by the U.S. and Canada in 1972. Today, contaminants in Lake Erie are below the maximum allowed, algae and excessive plant growth has been reduced, and native plants are once again growing in sections of the lake. The lake still has many problems, but it is no longer considered “dead.”
When people understand the effect their activity has on water quality, they can change what they are doing and hopefully have a positive impact.
“Right now, I’m just trying to get something started and draw attention to this,” said Freeman.