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What’s in a name? Leon County asks whether Lower Lake Lafayette is a wetland

WFSU by Casey Chapter, Florida Student News Watch

This story was made possible with support from the Florida Center for Government Accountability and the Florida Student News Watch.

Between the buzz of insects and exhale of wind that stir the tall grasses and make ripples beneath the lily pads, the shallows of Lake Lafayette are noisy with life and activity.

Recently, there has been discussion about whether this body of water — specifically Lower Lake Lafayette — is a lake at all.

“I have seen this system change,” said Johnny Richardson, water quality scientist for Leon County. He appeared in late March at a joint meeting of the county’s science advisory and the water resources committees to explain why Lake Lafayette could be reclassified as a wetland. Both committees are comprised of people who were appointed by the county commission.

Richardson’s observations of more and more floating vegetation choking the waterbody illustrates an ongoing conversation about a changing environment centered on the lake. The Lake is overseen by the state, and any classification changes would have to be made by the Department of Environmental Protection. There was a short conversation about changing the classification, but as of now, that’s on pause.

Meanwhile, Lower Lake Lafayette’s conditions continue to worsen, a potential omen for residents and local policymakers in the era of climate change.

What’s at the heart of the issue? Residents’ overreliance on fertilizers, according to one local environmentalist.

“When it rains, all that excess gets mixed with rainwater, goes into our lakes, and then that makes the lake plants grow like crazy,” said Michael Hill, a retired state biologist and Leon County resident.

Human activities “are killing the lake,” he said.

Richardson was not available for an interview and county communications redirected a reporter to his supervisor, Stormwater Management Coordinator Anna Padilla.

“The water levels and the whole system of all of the lakes have been decreasing over the past several years,” Padilla said.

She attributed the changes to recent years’ drought conditions. However, according to the U.S. National Integrated Drought Information System, Leon County experienced its 56th driest year to date over the past 128 years. An interactive map shows Leon as having no notable levels of drought.

“There’s definitely runoff that comes to (the lakes), generally from both the north and the south,” she said. “I don’t know how far their drainage basins go up but they definitely receive runoff.””

Inquiry into status

In March of 2021, Richardson sent an email to the state’s Florida Department of Environmental Protection, asking whether Lower Lake Lafayette’s classification should be altered to that of a wetland because of falling water levels and an abundant growth of plants.

“Lower Lake Lafayette appears and functions like a cypress-dominated swamp, while Alford Arm is a combo of cypress and various emergent/floating plant species,” Richardson wrote to FDEP Environmental Administrator Kevin O’Donnell.

The Lower Lake Lafayette is the southernmost segment of three lakes in the area, located just south of JR Alford Greenway and north of the Apalachee Parkway.

The open water that remains in Lower Lake Lafayette exists because of canoe trails maintained by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Richardson said.

He added that Leon County water scientists have not been able to sample water from the Alford Arm waterbody for several years, “and have intermittently sampled Lower Lake Lafayette” also due to what he called “extreme amounts of vegetation.”

“At this point, in my professional opinion, and if nothing changes, both systems are wetlands,” he wrote.

Accelerated change

Initially, the discussion over which agency — state or local — would decide Lake Lafayette’s status was murky. Even murkier is trying to isolate what has caused the lake’s change.

“We have been getting somewhat lower rainfall over time, that’s part of it. Then, you have this thing called ‘accelerated eutrophication,'” Richardson said in the March meeting.

Eutrophication is a process that starts when too many nutrients in a water body — such as phosphorus and nitrogen — choke the oxygen out of the water, and often cause algae to grow out of control.

The result: dead plants, dead fish.

Cultural eutrophication occurs when human activity contributes to the demise of an aquatic ecosystem by introducing pollutants into the water — such as sewage, fertilizers and detergents.

“Remember, this is just normal, but we’ve accelerated it,” Richardson told the committees in March.

Climate change, heavier rains and increased runoff are inextricably linked, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. One predicted effect will be to taxpayers as a changing climate complicates procedures for local utilities, including at water treatment facilities, local governments mitigating erosion and maintaining infrastructure.

Hill had emailed county officials, media and other locals roughly a month earlier about the lake’s possible reclassification. Hill retired from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2014.

“Since this came to my attention, I have been wondering why the county would pursue down-grading Lake Lafayette from lake to wetland,” Hill wrote. “I doubt this move will benefit Lake Lafayette, but will only serve to benefit developers, contractors and the county, in some way.””

Leon County communications official Mathieu Cavell said in February that reclassification of any body of water would be a “state-driven process” and would not change development standards.

County Communications Manager Kianna Gilley reiterated in April that any attempts to reclassify the lake would not change the wording of a county special development zone ordinance.

The lake is not being reclassified, but rather the state will continue to monitor the health of its water, FDEP press secretary Alexandra Kuchta said in response to an inquiry from nonprofit government watchdog Florida Center for Government Accountability.

Kuchta described the lake’s water basin as a meandering mix of wetland and prairie lakes that often cannot be sampled during winter months when they go dry.

“The location of the water quality sampling station in Lower Lake Lafayette, after further investigation, was found to be more representative of a wetland rather than a lake,” Kuchta wrote in a February email.

But natural wetlands are not created by humans, Kuchta said.

“Wetlands naturally have low dissolved oxygen levels that are not due to excess nutrients or anthropogenic sources,” Kuchta wrote. “DEP is not changing the designated use (of Lake Lafayette). The level of protection is remaining the same.””

While Lake Lafayette’s status for now is the same, many questions about what has specifically caused its recorded changes remain unanswered.