WHAT A DIFFERENCE THREE MONTHS MAKES — Aerial shots from March 5 and June 24 compare the amount of vegetation in Lake Helen Lake. PHOTOS BY ANTHONY DeFEO/FLYING CAT DRONEWORKS

How did the lake decline?

Over the years, Lake Helen Lake – already struggling with a diminishing water flow and fluctuating water level – became overwhelmed with hyperinvasive hydrilla, a hardy plant that finds conditions perfect for rampant growth in many of Florida lakes.

Hydrilla was the most prolific and most dangerous among several types of invasive plants and aquatic weeds that needed to be cleared from the lake. Among other problems it causes, thick patches of hydrilla can entangle the limbs of swimmers — especially children — and increase the risk of drowning.

Hydrilla is thought to have originated as a threat to Florida waterways decades ago, when aquarium dealers imported the plant from Sri Lanka, and then dumped it in lakes and streams when it proved unsuitable as an aquarium plant.

It is often carried from one waterway to another when it covertly hitches a ride on a boat trailer.

– Eli Witek

Lake Helen has made major progress in its citizen-led effort to clean up the city’s namesake lake.

The Committee to Save Lake Helen Lake, whose members are concerned citizen volunteers, has steadily gained ground this year in an effort to clear the lake of invasive vegetation, making it safe for recreational activities and improving the health of the water body.

A big boost for the effort came June 25 when Mayor Daisy Raisler announced that Gov. Ron DeSantis had signed into law a bill that provides $43,500 to clear a land bridge that has restricted the lake’s natural flow.

The Florida Legislature ended its session in early May, and the bill was still alive after the dust cleared, an achievement in its own right. Fewer than 200 bills out of thousands filed by legislators made it to the governor this year.

While the appropriations bill awaited an uncertain fate on the governor’s desk earlier this month, the Lake Helen committee organized volunteers every weekend to manually remove invasive vegetation that had died off in the lake after the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission sprayed a nontoxic herbicide.

The involvement of FWC also was a coup. The wildlife agency took a particular interest in Lake Helen Lake after committee members and members of the City Commission, including Vice Mayor Vernon Burton, attended multiple public FWC meetings.

FWC plans to introduce sterile grass carp in the fall, and the fish will clear out even more of the vegetation. In the meantime, the group secured a permit to remove the vegetation manually and worked overtime with a rotating assortment of volunteers to clean up the shorelines before Lake Helen’s annual lakeside July Fourth celebration.

Armed with pitchforks, small boats and canoes — and an ingenious winching system — the group waded into the effort for hours every weekend for the past month-and-a-half. On one recent Sunday, volunteers cleared away more than 90 cubic yards of dead vegetation, which was hauled away by Rough Cut Tractor Service, a local business.

The process was by no means easy. Many volunteers spent time neck-deep in water and ankle-deep in muck, cutting through thickets of an invasive kind of primrose willow, an aquatic weed.

Residents stopped to view the progress, and some, like Arlene Raffa, brought the volunteers refreshments, including water, Gatorade and fresh watermelon.

With the support of the City Commission, which recently allocated $5,000 to the cleanup effort, the Committee to Save Lake Helen Lake hired Sorko Services, an aquatic-services company, to use an aquatic tractor to scoop even more tonnage from the lake.

The efforts paid off. The boat ramp to the lake, which until recently was closed because of the hydrilla infestation, is open, and pictures show the dramatic transformation.

With a clear shoreline, residents can now fish, swim, and canoe safely in the lake, which has been a centerpiece of the town for more than 100 years.

Come fall, the Committee to Save Lake Helen Lake plans to add 4,000 native plants to the shoreline.

The huge strides forward wouldn’t have been made without the support of the City Commission, members of the committee said.

“[Vice Mayor] Vernon and [Mayor] Daisy in particular made a big impact, but having the entire commission support our efforts was vital to the success of this project, because everyone had the same goal in mind,” Committee to Save Lake Helen Lake Secretary Joy Taylor said.

To keep the effort fresh in the minds of lawmakers as the land-bridge cleanup bill wound through months of meetings in Tallahassee, Mayor Raisler sent handwritten letters to all the members of the state Agriculture Committee.

Raisler, who also originally put together the packet of information for the bill, reached out to Volusia County Council Member Barb Girtman for a final push, once the bill had successfully passed through both houses, and was awaiting the governor’s signature.

“A community came together, made up of citizens, elected officials, and local government,” Raisler said.


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