Only rainfall can renew Lake Jackson…

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Gary Mehr was pushing his motor boat into Lake Jackson, bemoaning the low water levels as he prepared to fish with his son-in-law.

Mehr, who’s lived in Tallahassee since 1968, said he remembers a lot of people coming to Tallahassee in the ’60s from out-of-state to fish in Lake Jackson. But since the lake level dropped in 1999 after a large sink hole opened up, the fishing hasn’t been as great.

“You could go out every night and just the fish (people) were keeping to have mounted were 10-, 12-, 14-pounders,” he said. “Now you’re lucky if you catch a 7-pounder.”

Unfortunately for people like Mehr, the lake isn’t likely to come back unless there are several years of average or above average rainfall, said Nick Wooten, chief of the Northwest Florida Water Management District’s Bureau of Surface Water.

The rain may be coming soon, though, according to John Feldt, a hydrologist with the Southeast River Forecast Center. He said historically, while there have been droughts that have lasted three or four years, the average drought lasts 2.5 years, which is about how long the current dry spell has lasted.

“I think overall, I would say that we’d be gradually be easing back into more of a normal pattern as we ease into the summer and the tropical season,” he said.

This is good news, because rather than being fed by the Floridan aquifer, which is at a deeper level than the lake, the lake is fed by stormwater runoff.

“The level of the lake is really completely controlled by the amount of rainfall that we’ve received,” Wooten said. “We had a drought in 2007, and we’ve had several drought years before that.”

Rainfall has been below average for seven out of the last 10 years, he said, and as of April this year, about 18 inches of rain had fallen, which is 2 inches less than normal.

For the past few months, the water in most parts of the lake has stayed between 2 and 4 feet deep, or about 78 or 79 feet above sea level. The lake is considered low when the water is 74-82 feet above sea level. Typical level is 82-88 feet and high or flood stage is 88 feet and above.

Mehr had suggested that what really needs to be done is to have the Porter Hole Sink off Faulk Drive plugged. But lake experts say the actual amount of water that drains through the sink isn’t significant.

“Probably not even 1 percent of the water leaving the lake is going down that sink,” said Michael Hill, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Most of it is evaporating and it’s not being replenished by the rain.”

The drying of the lake has occurred periodically in the past, and is actually beneficial for it, said Chris Richards, chief of the Bureau of Groundwater, for the Northwest Florida Water Management District.

“Without the natural process that’s been going on for millennia, there would be a number of changes that would take place,” he said. “It has to do with the fisheries and the ecosystem that has developed there based on these natural processes.”

Wooten said when the lake dries, some of the chemicals left from fertilizers and runoff dry out and are chemically changed when they’re exposed to the air. They form a fine dust and are blown away, so when the lake returns, the water is cleaner than it was before.

The low water level is something the community will simply have to live with until the rain starts falling, Wooten said.

“People get impatient,” he said. “But it will eventually come back to normal.”

Hill is hoping that happens sooner rather than later.

“There are several of us that are just crossing our fingers that a tropical storm will come through and fill the lake back up,” he said. “When it rains, the lake will fill.”

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