FWC asked to change dynamic in managing aquatic plants

GAINESVILLE — Population growth in Florida has caused increased problems with invasive aquatic plants, Kipp Frohlich, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) director of Habitat and Species Conservation, explained at the Feb. 22 FWC meeting in Gainesville.

Okeechobee waterway map

“People want to live near and on the water,” said Mr. Frohlich. “People want to live close to freshwater, and they do. They build all around lakes and ponds.” This leads to nutrient enrichment.

“We get nutrient laden water coming into our lakes from all kinds of sources – septic tanks, agricultural runoff and urban runoff. That’s adding nutrients to these systems.

“The other change is the lack of fluctuation. Lakes in Florida, typically before we changed them, they’re shallow and they would rise and fall a lot throughout the year,” he continued.

Before the man-made changes to the system for flood control and water supply, the lakes would overflow their banks through storm events, pushing nutrients into the flood plains. In drought conditions, they would draw down and dry out, which was healthy for the lakes and encouraged growth of native vegetation.

Now the lakes are maintained in a very narrow band without the extreme highs and lows, he continued. The lakes are not allowed to overflow their banks due to the desire to protect the homes of those who live around the lakes.

These man-made changes have cause increased nutrient load in the waterways. He said the increased nutrient load in the water feeds the non-native invasive plants and also causes some native plants to grow to nuisance levels.

“Not everybody has the same view of what ‘their lake’ should look like in the future,” he explained. Duck hunters and bass fishermen want aquatic vegetation to provide habitat for fish and wildlife. Homeowners want a nice view of the water. Water skiers want deep open water.

He said the invasive plants grow extremely fast and have a competitive advantage over the native plants.

“Florida has a long history of battling invasive plants,” he explained. For decades, mechanical control was used to remove the hyacinths. Later chemical controls were added.

Biological controls and fire are also used to control plants.

He said 17 classes of herbicides are registered for use in Florida waters. Chemicals are applied by airboats, helicopters, outboards, ATVs and backpack sprayers.

Due to public complaints about chemical spraying at the December FWC meeting, the FWC paused chemical spraying of aquatic plants while conducting public hearings about the program. Since pausing the aquatic spraying on Jan. 28, FWC officials have been traveling around the state in a listening tour. Mr. Frohlich said they have also received more than 500 written comments from the public.

So far, the comments from the public have included:
• A lot of dissatisfaction on water quality of the lakes;
• Concerns about lack of contractor oversight and accountability;
• A general preference for mechanical over chemical controls; and,
• Concern about health issues related to use of certain chemicals.

“If we were to pause too long, we would create a bigger problem,” said Eric Sutton, FWC executive director. “We’ve gathered a lot of helpful input.” He said the issue is emotionally-charged.

“For all of the opposition we are hearing, there is much support for this program too,” he said.

Mr. Sutton said FWC needs to conclude the pause and get back to managing the aquatic plants, but he expects a paradigm shift for the management of Lake Okeechobee.

He said on Lake Okeechobee “we need to take a more strategic approach. “That may result in a higher percentage of floating plants,” he added. He suggested putting together a technical assistance group including FDEP and stakeholders. Mr. Sutton added that while the vast majority of contractors are highly trained professionals, he acknowledges that FWC must do more to hold all of the spraying contractors accountable.

“It’s important to understand that these are an actual threat to our waterways,” said Dr. Jason Ferrell of the UF/IFAS Center for Aquatic Plants. In small numbers, he said, the plants can provide habitat beneficial to fish. However invasive plants can grow out of control very quickly, shading out the native plants.

Newton Cook of United Waterfowlers thanked FWC for recognizing there is a problem with aquatic spraying. That is an important step, he said.

He said for a freshwater lake to be healthy, 30 to 80 percent of the lake should contain submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). The plants provide the filter system for the water.

“Thirty percent is what we ask for. We understand we cannot have it all,” he said.

“We need to change the dynamics of the program of spraying,” he said. “We cannot stop spraying forever. It will not work.”

“We must change the dynamics to where the contractors are given a section of the lake, a property of water body or a whole water body, and say ‘this is what we want.’ We want 30 percent SAV … and you are to go out there and spray these clumps of water lettuce and hyacinth when they are no bigger than a dinner plate, and don’t wait until we’ve got 500 acres and we have to bring in helicopters. If we can change the contracts so the dynamics are set that the less chemical you use, the more money you’re going to make, all of these guys are going to be very happy,” Mr. Cook said (motioning to the large group of Applied Aquatics employees in the meeting room), the duck hunters are going to be happy, the crappie fishermen are going to be happy, the Ski-Doo riders are going to be happy.

“But we must change the program,” he said. “What we’ve got now is not working.”

Mary Ann Martin, who operates a Roland Martin’s marina on Lake Okeechobee, made an impassioned plea to save the lake she loves.

“The lake is a treasure,” she said. “That’s where everybody wants to go to catch their trophy fish and brag about it when they get home.

“The lake is sick right now,” Ms. Martin continued. “We need to take care of it.”

She said there is very little spawning on the lake right now. There are no ducks.

“Did you know coot bay was named because there were more than 5,000 coots in that little bay? You’re lucky to see two now.

The habitat is gone. That is a result of over spraying and the problems with the lake, she continued.

“My recommendation: I propose to drop the lake to 10.5 ft. temporarily, so that would expose a lot of areas to dry out and to burn. I believe Mother Nature is always right. She goes into a lot of places where the woods are and burns, and it is amazing how quick the game comes back in those areas. I think that applies to the Lake Okeechobee problem, I think we need to burn. It’s the cheapest way. It’s the most effective way to get rid of the sediment and dead vegetation and spark that lake. It’s amazing how fast the fish will move into those areas and eat the little bugs and spawn.

“The other recommendation I have is to put weirs on the different canals, such as Fisheating Creek, Indian Prairie, Clewiston channel and J&S Canal. The weirs would catch the hyacinths.

“These weirs need to be managed. If you took a pile of hyacinth and put them on the bank, and came back the next day, it would be half that size because 90 percent of a hyacinth is water.

“I do propose mechanical harvesting over chemical spraying,” she said.

Mike Hulon of Texas Aquatics Harvesting said mechanical harvesting can do more to rid lakes of invasive plants while also removing excess nutrient load from the waterways. (“Texas in name only, we are solely based in Florida,” he added.) He said they are working on ways to cut the costs of mechanical harvesting.

Commissioner Michael Sole asked if the larger lakes could have individual management plans just as the state parks do. He said during the listening sessions it was clear that FWC has lost the trust of many of the stakeholders. He said they will need to remember that “the enemy is the invasive plants.”

Mr. Frohlich said a lake management plan was developed for Lake Orange, and that really helps, and they are working on one now for Lake Istokpoga.

He said lake management plans are a great concept. “Putting the resources to that and the time is a daunting task, but we are committed to it.”

FWC Commissioners Sonya Rood said as a bee keeper she is concerned about the use of helicopters to drop herbicides. Use of chemicals should be more targeted, she opined. “I do think the lake management plan is the way to go for the future,” said Commissioner Rood.

“I love burning,” said Commissioner Joshua Kellam. “Burning is a great management tool.”

Commissioner Gary Nicklaus said there should be individual plans for each lake because what is best for one lake is not always best for another.

“It’s clear to me this is complicated,” said Commission Chairman Robert Spottswood. He said FWC needs to be more creative and innovative.

“It’s not just a matter of cost. You can’t put a value on habitat,” he said. The chairman asked the executive director to work with Mr. Frohlich and FWC staff to come up with “a plan that takes all of this into account keeping in mind that preservation of the environment is the biggest task.” Commissioner Sole, who was tasked as commission’s representative in this effort, said FWC values stakeholder input.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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