Work could wrap up today on a $7.3 million project that dredged dozens of canals on troubled Lake Griffin.The massive effort — one of the biggest ever handled by the Lake County Water Authority — started in 2005 and fell more than a year behind schedule. Officials might call it finished today if they tour the lake and find that contractor E.R. Jahna Industries completed all the requirements of the dredging.

Crews removed more than 340,000 cubic yards of muck and sand from the bottom of 43 canals around Lake Griffin, disposing that material at a former muck farm on Griffin’s north side. The goal is to improve access so that residents along the canals can get their boats to the lake even when water levels are low.

That will be important when the St. Johns River Water Management District moves ahead with plans to increase seasonal water fluctuations to improve the health of Lake Griffin. One concern, however, is that Griffin and other parts of the Harris Chain of Lakes are near historic lows, and experts say it could take from months to a year or more before this area gets enough rain to bring lakes back to normal levels.

Another concern is how the St. Johns water district will handle the proposed change in water fluctuations on Griffin.

Water levels among the Harris chain are controlled by a series of locks and dams. During summers, Griffin typically is dropped up to 9 inches to prevent flooding of waterfront properties during seasonal rains.

Now that the canals are lowered, officials want to allow Griffin to drop a foot or more. That could help the large water body recover by drying out large portions of mucky shoreline and helping establish aquatic plants essential for fish habitat.

That is the plan that prompted the canal-dredging idea more than three years ago. But now the St. Johns district has a plan to allow city officials in Apopka to withdraw up to 1.8 billion gallons of water a year from Lake Apopka.

If approved, the district would retain water in Lake Apopka by cutting in half the minimum flow of water that is allowed downstream through the Harris chain. Water also would be held back in another part of the Harris chain.

Water panels lock horns

The average water level on Lake Apopka would increase 2.2 inches. Several lakes downstream would drop by a third of an inch, and Lake Griffin would drop an average of 1.8 inches.

The water authority recently filed a legal petition with the St. Johns to force it to establish required minimum water flow and lake levels for Apopka and the Harris chain before allowing withdrawals.

“The Authority believes that in the absence of ‘Minimum Flows and Levels’ set by rule, decisions by the St. Johns River Water Management District concerning the management of Lake Apopka and the Harris Chain will not protect the resources of this very important area of Florida’s surface waters,” Mike Perry, executive director of the Lake water authority, wrote in a letter.

Restoration group worries

Others also fear what the St. Johns district’s proposals could do to the Harris chain.

Skip Goerner, vice chairman of the Harris Chain of Lakes Restoration Council, said costly projects to restore Lake Griffin and the rest of the Harris chain rely on historically based water flows that the district could change to allow the Apopka withdrawals. He fears that could impair restoration.

“We have spent millions of dollars and plan on spending millions more on restoration efforts using this criteria based on historic flows and water levels,” Goerner explained. “We’re very concerned about the withdrawals and

[the district] holding water back from us.”

The water authority is trying to improve water quality on the Harris chain by building a $7.3 million nutrient-reduction facility along the shores of Apopka-Beauclair Canal that will remove algae-feeding phosphorus and other pollutants flowing in from Lake Apopka. If the St. Johns district restricts the minimum flow of water from Lake Apopka, it likely would decrease the nutrient-reduction facility’s effectiveness.

Robert Sargent can be reached at [email protected]

From Staff and Wire Reports
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