Cross Creek Lodge once catered to fishermen, hunters and people with a love for the great outdoors, but with lake levels staying low for many years it seems the lodge will never thrive like it previously did.
Owner and operator of the Cross Creek Lodge Gary Palmeter opened the doors to his business, which sits on the creek between Orange and Lochloosa lakes, more than three decades ago, but irregular lake levels have allowed him to operate for only 12 of 33 years he’s been in business.
“We still keep the motel going and we try to keep the campground going as best we can, but the motel hasn’t done anything because most of the people that want to come here to stay are fishermen,” Palmeter said. “They call and want to bring their son to where they used to fish and, well, they can’t do that anymore.”
Palmeter said he feels there’s more to this problem than just rain. A sinkhole under Orange Lake, a major source of contention between Marion and Alachua counties, is also thought to be draining a large amount of water from the lake.
“So that’s the crux of the problem besides the rain,” he said. “…We get water levels and I understand that we won’t maintain a high level, but with water always flowing out of the lakes there’s nothing that can be done to stabilize them.”
The large amounts of rain that accompany Florida summers can refill the lakes, but Palmeter knows the reprieve is only temporary.
“Even when we got the two hurricanes that came late in 2004, that water only held for 18 months. It was up sufficiently so that we could have boats launch here,” Palmeter said. “We had boat and motor rentals again. I don’t think we’re going to go through that again.”
Other local businesses have been suffering as well. The Yearling Restaurant in Cross Creek is still open, but it’s up for sale. With continued limited lake access, Palmeter said it’s hard to keep these businesses running.
“I’m losing a lot of money every year,” Palmeter said. “We used to have a number of people that stayed here through the hunting season, but if they don’t get a permit, which is a lottery type thing, they don’t come. That’s a loss to not only the community but the county, because that’s tourist dollars out the window.”
Alachua County Environmental Protection Director Chris Bird said no matter how much it has been debated over the past 50 years, nothing can be done to the Orange Lake sinkhole without causing more damage. The natural geology of the lake is such that plugging up the sinkhole could disturb many delicate environmental relationships.
“Most likely what would happen is that there would just be other sinks that would open up other places because there’s just a lot of pressure,” Bird said. “They’ve actually done dive trace studies that suggest that that water is draining back into the aquifer and it’s part of the Silver springshed, so again, there’s just a lot of important relationships. And because of that, at least in my opinion, it would not be wise to start trying to mess with mother nature.”
Orange and Lochloosa lakes are not the only ones experiencing low levels in Alachua County. Newnan’s Lake has also experienced fluctuations in water levels. Retired wetlands biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Dale Crider has seen the level changes while living by the lake. Crider said the situation is not much different from Keystone Heights.
“I think it’s like most north Florida lakes, that it’s tied in to the Floridian aquifer, which is over-pumped and underfed right now because we’re not getting the rains we used to,” Crider said, “and it’s over-pumped by all sources, from municipal to agriculture to – you name it.”
Crider pointed to a tree, where the water level line from three weeks ago was visible, showing how far it had decreased in such a short time. He said it demonstrates the lakes still aren’t healthy.
“I don’t think we’ll ever reach that point where what we used to call normal use of water for watering our lawn or just filling our swimming pool more frequently or whatever we do with it,” he said. “I think those days are past.”
Crider and Palmeter agree that county officials and water regulators will need to do a better job of overseeing Florida’s water resources.