How North Florida’s Lake Region Might Get Help For Its Water Levels

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Keystone Heights Mayor Mary Lou Hildreth’s home in the late 1920s. Hildreth’s home sits on Lake Geneva, which has receded far from its original shoreline.

With Florida’s rainy season coming to an end, the town of Keystone Heights is looking to fix problems with its lakes that rainfall alone will not.

Read part two of this story about Cross Creek’s water issues.

The Keystone Heights community has been damaged economically by decreasing lake levels, but as the town teams up with the St. John’s River Water Management District, it could be moving toward a solution.

Keystone Heights Mayor Mary Lou Hildreth said her view – looking out onto the receding shoreline of Lake Geneva – makes her sad. She knows what it was years ago and what it could be if the water levels could recover. And after seeing her city suffer for many years and with an estimated $80 million in losses, she said, something needs to be done.

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Keystone Heights, known as the Lake Region of North Florida, has seen drastic changes to the landscape as lakes that once flourished have nearly dried up in the last two years. A decade of little rainfall and what residents fear is over-pumping of the Floridan aquifer have negatively impacted the lakes and the homes surrounding them. Hildreth said people aren’t eating in area restaurants, renting boats, fishing or skiing – activities that once helped businesses stay afloat.

In an effort to save the lakes and communities that depend on them, residents and politicians are coming together to find a solution.

Many residents are curious to know what the exact cause of the receding lake levels could be, especially in the Keystone Heights area, and what solutions can be implemented.

SJRWMD spokeswoman Teresa Monson explained how hard pinpointing just one cause can be.

“The Keystone Heights area lakes have naturally fluctuated up and down over many decades,” Monson said, “and currently there are lower water levels in the lake that are largely — not entirely — but largely caused by reduced rainfall over many years. Again, even decades.”

Water is also allowed to naturally seep down into the aquifer system because the local terrain is made of limestone and lake bottoms are sandy. Some of the lakes even have active sinkholes draining water into the aquifer.

The lakes haven’t always been this way. Elisabeth Williamson, a Keystone Heights resident, remembers the lake she knew from her childhood. She grew up in the area, living on Gatorbone Lake for most of her life.

“I really feel for folks that have retired to this area as they’ve watched their property values go down, down, down and also businesses that were very lake-oriented,” Williamson said.

She recalled a little pond in front of the house where she grew up. Once a great fishing hole, it has been dry now for a decade or more. She also pointed out the number of docks  – now dry and falling apart – standing far from the shoreline.

Watching the lake levels fall over the years, she said, has been heartbreaking.

“I’m not sure it’s ever going to be the same again,” she said.

Williamson has been so distraught by low lake levels, she wrote a song about it called “The Land of Flowers.”

The yearly average rainfall in inches is between 50 and 55 in Florida, but Keystone Heights levels have been down for some time. Monson said 10 years ago, rainfall was measured at 38 inches per year and improved five years later to 50 inches.

Despite these yearly fluctuations, 2013 was a good year for rain with the area receiving 19 inches between May and June, which brought Lake Brooklyn’s levels up nearly four feet. Some residents, though, feel the reprieve is only temporary.

“They used to have races out here on the Fourth of July, skiing, fishing, all types of recreational outdoor activities,” Hildreth said. “And now because the lakes have gone down, we don’t have that same draw.  And a lot of our businesses are suffering.  Our property values are suffering.  The economy of my city is suffering because of it.”

She said utilities, lack of rainfall, industry and agriculture all come together to create a perfect storm for low water levels in the aquifer. With no clear end in sight, the community is fighting back.

Save Our Lakes is one organization trying to make a difference. The group holds monthly meetings in Keystone Heights to inform the community about what is being done to restore the lakes and to develop long-term solutions to help the community recover.

Save Our Lakes President Vivian Katz said a lack of knowledge is the key problem with the lakes, not a person or entity.

She said Keystone Heights is “a lake community that’s losing its lakes.”

For now, the community and the water management district are trying to work together and are evaluating an aquifer water replenishment plan. This plan would focus on bringing more water into the Floridan aquifer in the hopes it will benefit the lakes and wetlands and provide a sustainable water source for the region.

Hildreth said a variety of boards, especially for Lake Brooklyn and Lake Geneva, have been meeting for two years to discuss solutions, but the process is “agonizingly slow,” though she has noticed some movement on the water management district’s part.

“Our current concern, though, is that they’re not doing enough fast enough and that science should be driving the politics, but politics is really driving the science right now,” she said.

Katie Campbell contributed reporting.

Mary Lou Hildreth’s home today. Her view of Lake Geneva is considerably different from the view of the 1920s. (Photos by Donna Green-Townsend/WUFT News)

After watching Keystone Heights suffer in the wake of the low water levels, Mary Lou Hildreth says something must be done. She sent a petition to St. John’s Water Management District detailing the situation and a need for action.

Water levels continue to fall in Keystone Heights. A single cause is too difficult to pinpoint for sole responsibility.

The community is working with SJRWMD on an aquifer water replenishment plan. The plan would focus on bringing more water into the Floridan aquifer, hopefully benefitting areas like Keystone Beach.

Elisabeth Williamson, a resident of Keystone Heights, points out one of the broken down docks left sitting on the shore. She said “relics” like this will one day fall away, and people will never know just how high the lakes used to be.

A dock stands alone on dry land. Current water levels fell far below those of past years when rainfall was greater, leaving the old shores looking more like grasslands.

Though it once reached the water, this dock now stands dry and unused. Receding shorelines have left numerous docks in the same state in Keystone Heights area.

An economy that once depended on the lakes is now left reeling from a lack of customers. Waterfront properties have also lost value.

About Amanda Jackson

Amanda is a reporter for WUFT News. Reach him by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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