110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
Water managers cite low rainfall, but residents are suspicious
By Lee Simms
posted Feb 19, 2013 - 6:30:59am
Folks in Lake Helen are watching their city’s namesake disappear, and they want to know why water levels are dropping.
Mayor Buddy Snowden and others believe construction in the area is stopping groundwater from reaching the town’s beloved Lake Helen. Additionally, Snowden said there’s also evidence Lake Helen had a small spring that’s gone dry.
“I know there’s some other event contributing to the levels of the lakes,” he said. “We’ve had droughts, and they have not affected the lake like this.”
The mayor is not just imagining things.
According to Water Management District reports, Lake Helen’s surface is now about 37 feet above sea level. In 2006, it hovered close to 50 feet above sea level. Since 1990, the 26-acre lake’s surface has fluctuated between 40 feet and 50 feet above sea level. It dipped to 39 feet during a period in 2008, but otherwise has stayed at or above 40 feet for at least 22 years.
The adjacent Lake Harlan has gone completely dry in recent years. It’s about half the size of Lake Helen. The smaller lake used to receive Helen’s overflow. Like its sister lake, Snowden said, more and more of Helen’s bottom is emerging from the waterline.
“If it continues at the rate it’s going, I think we’ll have two separations and in effect have three ponds that were Lake Helen,” he said. “There’s millions upon millions of gallons that are missing.”
In January, Nancy Christman, intergovernmental coordinator for the Water Management District, told the Lake Helen City Commission a protracted drought is causing a number of Central Florida lakes to drop far below their usual levels, and even to dry up.
“The lakes in this area and south are low,” she said.
Hank Largin, public-communications coordinator for the Water Management District, said the state’s seemingly good fortune during the past few hurricane seasons is not so good when it comes to keeping lakes full.
“What’s happened the last few years is we haven’t had the tropical storms,” Largin said. “Those generally bring a lot of rain. If you look at the last five or six years, tropical storms have missed Florida.”
Tom Carey, pollution-control manager for Volusia County, has been doing local groundwater reports for two decades. He said small rainfall variations make big differences over time.
Carey has measured a 25-inch cumulative rainfall shortage during the past four years. His rainfall counts are based on data from two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather stations, one in DeLand and the other in Daytona Beach.
The Water Management District, which uses different measuring points, figures Volusia County is about 30 inches short on rainfall over the past four years.
“Everything I have seen and experienced over 24 years with the county is that we’re in a four-year dry period and everything will stay low in hydrology until we get some rainfall,” Carey said.
He said Volusia usually gets about 55 inches of rain a year. In 2012, he said, the county was short about 7.93 inches. The year before, we were off the average by about 8.12 inches. In 2010, it was 7.42 inches. In 2009, rainfall was near normal, but short about 1.59 inches.
That equals a rain shortage of about 522.6 billion gallons over Volusia County’s 1,200 square miles, according to Carey.
The Water Management District reports Southwest Volusia got the brunt of that rainfall shortage in 2012; it was more than 10 inches short on rainfall.
The water dearth affects lakes unevenly, due to geology.
“Some lake bottoms are leakier than others,” Carey said. “Lake Helen might have a more permeable bed.”
Teresa H. Monson, public-communications coordinator for the Water Management District, said Helen does have a soft bottom, and possibly some drains.
“According to work performed by the District and (United States Geological Survey), Lake Helen appears to have a relatively leaky bottom with evidence of sinkholes that are filled with sandy material,” she said.
The water below the ground, too, is running low in spots of Volusia County.
“As of January, we have 14 monitoring wells that are below what we call baseline,” Carey said.
The county has 42 monitoring wells. The subterranean water shortages are dispersed throughout the county, from Daytona Beach to Glenwood, Orange City to Pierson.
Carey said that because of a geological feature called the DeLand Ridge, it’s unlikely Lake Helen has ever had a spring. The DeLand Ridge is a gentle land swell on the western side of Volusia County.
“It’s a pile of sand; that’s what it is,” Carey said.
The ridge goes upward to 80 feet above sea level. Lake Helen sits on a part that averages about 60 feet above sea level, according to the USGS.
“The thing about springs is where they occur,” Carey said. “They occur along the river, because they’re at a lower elevation than the DeLand Ridge. If you can’t create water pressure to fight against gravity, springs don’t occur.”
However, Carey said, depending on subterranean features, it’s possible that Helen gets the benefit of a seep when water levels are closer to normal. A seep occurs when water cannot penetrate a layer of earth. The water will follow the gravity along the firmer layer, and if the ground dips below it, water will seep out.
Seeps are sometimes mistaken for springs, Carey said, noting that a seep in Cassadaga, by Lake Colby, is often taken for being a spring. However, Carey said, what’s emerging from the seep is not water from the aquifer, but water that couldn’t sink to it.
Whether area construction is robbing water from Lake Helen, Carey said, depends on a number of factors, but it’s possible.
Whatever the causes of Helen’s permanent or temporary decline, the mayor said, wildlife is dying, and the water is becoming increasingly putrid.
He’d like science to look into what longtime townsfolk are seeing — a dying, drying lake that increasingly seems beyond recovery.
It’s unlikely Lake Helen city government can do the job.
“It would take the city a tremendous amount of money to do some in-depth study,” Snowden said.
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