It was a dark and stormy night when two representatives from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Stephen Enloe, an associate professor at the University of Florida’s Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, descended on Lake Helen for a workshop on herbicides.
One of the smallest cities in Volusia County, Lake Helen is in many ways a microcosm of local, state, and even national politics.
In this case, the concern was Lake Helen’s microcosm within a microcosm — the city’s namesake lake, and the use of herbicides to control invasive aquatic plants.
A local citizen-led group, the Save Lake Helen Lake Committee, in conjunction with the FWC, has been tackling an invasive vegetation problem with a multi-pronged approach that includes chemical spraying, mechanical removal, and the introduction this Halloween of 12 sterilized grass carp.
The practices used on the 21-acre Lake Helen Lake are those the FWC does on a much larger scale — in fiscal year 2017-2018, some $17 million was spent on aquatic vegetation management alone, covering an area of around 1.7 million acres. The FWC plant management budget for Lake Helen Lake in 2018-2019 is $8,769.
“It’s unusual for FWC to stock a water body of this size,” UF professor Enloe said.
In other larger lakes, like Lake Okeechobee, tens of thousands of grass carp have been released.
But the location of Lake Helen Lake, which is on top of a hill, and the relative isolation from other water bodies, make the lake specifically suited to positively respond to management techniques.
That factor was a selling point for the local committee to get the FWC involved.
“The geographic isolation is special and unique,” Enloe said. “You’re in a good position to prevent new species [and control existing ones].”
Part of the management plan included spraying.
Roughly one-third of a gallon, or about 2.8 pounds, of a solution containing 3.3-percent glyphosate was sprayed once on shoreline vegetation around Lake Helen Lake in May 2018.
By contrast, according to news reports, 20,688 pounds of herbicides were sprayed at Lake Okeechobee in 2019.
Without spraying as part of invasive plant management, lakes as small as Lake Helen and as large as Lake Okeechobee will almost certainly decline as native plants are choked out by aggressive competitors, the experts said.
“[Without intervention,] invasive plant problems tend to increase exponentially and become very problematic,” Enloe said.
If there was enough science to back up the conclusion that glyphosate was dangerous to humans, national and state regulators, like the EPA and FWC, and UF/IFAS, would immediately put the brakes on, according to Enloe.
“If anyone ever says ‘the science is settled’ — that’s a red flag for me,” Enloe said. “Science is a process; science changes.”
In the meantime, both UF/IFAS and the FWC are working on alternative strategies that will still be successful, partly because of the statewide public outcry, partly for cost-effectiveness, and partly because chemicals are ultimately a Band-Aid on the problem.
After meeting Dec. 11 in Panama City, the FWC announced that it is setting aside $1 million in current funding to test or implement new ideas in non-herbicide plant management.
So far, there’s no silver bullet for aquatic invasive vegetation — not in the small body of water that is the namesake of Lake Helen, and not in the big state of Florida and its thousands of miles of water.