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The debate over the use of herbicides to control invasive aquatic vegetation in Lake Helen’s lakes has intensified, tapping into countywide — and statewide — struggles.

Lake Helen’s two largest lakes have long contended with invasive vegetative species that choke out other flora and fauna and harm the overall health of the lakes. How to go about fixing the problem, however, has been divisive.

In particular, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s treatment plans for both Lake Helen Lake and Lake Macy include the application of herbicides, among other measures (like introducing sterile carp to eat the vegetation). Some citizens vehemently oppose herbicide treatment.

The last time The Beacon wrote about the issue, the Lake Helen City Commission had opted to continue with FWC’s treatment plan for the lakes over the protests of some residents. The plan had the backing of the Lake Helen Lake Committee, a citizen initiative.

Since then, the makeup of the City Commission and the city administration has changed, and FWC was directed to pause spraying herbicides in lakes while the debate over herbicide use to control invasive vegetation in city lakes raged once again.

Statewide, counties and cities have had to contend with how to maintain water bodies while opposition grows to the use of glyphosate, an herbicide that is used to assist in controlling invasive aquatic vegetation infestations.

“Spraying is not always the answer. And we should not be spraying anymore,” resident Nancy Weary said. “We can do this right, without spray. There are options.”

The crux of the problem is that those against herbicide spraying want no spraying at all, while the FWC, and other agencies and organizations, contend that controlling the various species of invasive aquatic vegetation causing havoc throughout the state is currently not possible without some spraying.

Since late 2019, the FWC has set aside funding for innovative pilot projects that explore how to manage water bodies without herbicidal treatment.

In Lake Helen, a town of around 2,800 people, the debate has at times become divisive and personal. And as the different groups stand at an impasse, and the City Commission considers the possibilities, the two biggest lakes could suffer the ill effects caused by vegetation overgrowth.

An aerial photo of Lake Helen shows a large amount of hydrilla peeking up out of the water in 2019, before the lake was treated. The hydrilla patches are the spotty green areas in the water toward the bottom-right of the image. Land bridges, such as the one seen toward the left of the image, have since been mostly removed.

Lake Macy is currently contending with salvinia and Cuban bulrush populations, the latter of which the FWC has said needs maintenance. Lake Helen Lake Committee members pull invasive vegetation from the shoreline by hand on the weekends.

Salvinia, a floating fern, blankets sections of Lake Macy in Lake Helen in March. By April, much of the plant matter had died off and drifted to the bottom.

Likely, Volusia County Chair Jeff Brower was not entirely aware he had stepped into a heated debate in Lake Helen when he visited for an April 8 meeting.

Brower was there in support of two speakers, conservationist Mikhael Elfenbein and Nicholas Szabo, who presented on AguaCulture, a startup firm that focuses on mechanical harvesting of aquatic vegetation, particularly water hyacinth.

The firm had made a presentation to the County Council April 6, and secured the elected officials’ backing via a resolution “supporting innovative pilot projects mechanically removing invasive aquatic vegetation from the watersheds in the State of Florida.”

A similar resolution was proposed for adoption by the Lake Helen City Commission, and there was immediate interest in having the firm use Lake Helen lakes to pilot their fledgling program.

AguaCulture’s basic innovation is tying the mechanical harvesting to a process that would use the pulverized aquatic vegetation as fertilizer for hayfields, turning what would be considered nuisance weeds into an agricultural commodity.

“Instead of just either spraying or dumping the material in the bank or letting it rot, we’re actually giving it a purpose,” AguaCulture representative Szabo said. “When you look at a lake full of weeds, you think, ‘OK, this is a waste, it’s causing problems,’ and you spray it, or you harvest it and get it out of there. But if you treat it like the commodity … most plants have value, they can grow crops, they can improve soil.”

But, AguaCulture proponent and professional conservationist Elfenbein said, the method is not a replacement for spraying.

“I’m not looking for a way to end all chemical spraying. There will never be a way to end all chemical spraying — there will always be a need to spray chemicals to manage aquatic vegetation,” Elfenbein said. “What the hopes are, is that we can limit the amount of chemicals that we put into those waters by finding another tool in the toolbox to remove that aquatic vegetation.”

“I’m on a mission to bring a new technology, and we are the first — Volusia County and Lake Helen — are the first people outside of South Florida to show interest in this,” Brower told residents in attendance at the City Commission meeting.

Jeff Brower indicates to Nicholas Szabo, the mastermind behind Aguaculture, at a Lake Helen City Commission meeting April 8.

Almost immediately, there were problems.

Specifically, the commission was not given the resolution ahead of time, and some expressed discomfort with voting on something that had not been provided to them, or to the public, for review.

The resolution also differed significantly from the one approved by the County Council. While the title of the county resolution specified the resolution was to support pilot projects for mechanical vegetation removal on Lake Okeechobee, the resolution before Lake Helen was to support mechanical removal on “city lakes.”

An agenda item further down also complicated matters. To address the controversy over lake management, City Administrator Lee Evett proposed asking FWC to wait three months to perform maintenance on Lake Macy while the city hired an outside consultant.

The excitement over AguaCulture, and the possibility the company could be convinced to use Lake Helen as a pilot project, made the resolution hopelessly entangled with Lake Helen’s particular situation, as well as interpersonal dynamics that, at this point, stretch over years.

“Can you get the water quality right in a community that refuses to get away from septic tanks?” Commissioner Rick Basso asked.

“That’s a tough one,” Szabo said.

“You could use my property,” resident Betty O’Laughlin offered, referring to the fertilizer AguaCulture would make from aquatic vegetation. “We’ve got four big horses, two little ones, a donkey and a little mini. And we have lots of horse poop all over … . So if you’d like to find some place to put it.”

“We’re making deals already,” Szabo said.

“If we don’t clean all the lakes, is that stuff just going to jump back across the street? I’m 100 yards from Lake Helen [Lake]. And the ducks are just gonna bring it right back.” said resident Scott Leitzel, who lives next to privately owned Lake Harlan. “I’ll give you [Lake Harlan] to do the pilot.”

To the disappointment of AguaCulture, the City Commission ultimately directed the administrator and attorney to work on the language of the resolution to bring back in May and, in the meantime, to send a letter in support to the county.

Two hours later, while a Lake Helen Lake Committee member waited at the dais to speak, city commissioners tussled over the choosing of the environmental consultant.

“If we want to get a consultant, I don’t have a problem with it,” Commissioner Jim Connell said. “I prefer we direct our city administrator, ‘Would you find us a consultant that can come in and talk to us about this?’”

Connell appeared to be unhappy that Commissioner Kelly Frasca had suggested a specific consultant, rather than spending time accepting proposals from various consultants.

“How I was introduced to this consultant has no bearings, except for the fact that I don’t believe in everything that this consultant does. I do not believe in spraying of toxic herbicides,” said Frasca, who suggested the consultant, and had also invited AguaCulture to speak.

There is no love lost between Frasca and Connell. During the 2020 election cycle, Frasca filed a complaint against Connell with the Florida Elections Commission over a Facebook post where Connell opined about the candidates for Zone 2. Frasca had been elected to the City Commission in 2019.

The wounds between the two appear to remain unhealed.

“This frivolous complaint did nothing to build goodwill between Commissioner Frasca and I. Regrettably, this is pure baseless acrimony and I do not expect much will change either,” Connell wrote in a post April 11.

According to the post, the Elections Commission found the complaint “legally insufficient” on April 7, a day before the regular meeting of the City Commission.

Personal issues aside, the push to move away from spraying has forced the consideration of alternative possible solutions. It also has continually dredged up related problems: The cost and time associated with solely using mechanical and manual removal exceeds what many cities can manage. There are, so far, no silver-bullet solutions, even with spraying.

Years ago, there was no Lake Committee, and there were no long-term plans for cleaning the lakes, said Joy Taylor, a founding member of the Lake Committee. Taylor recalled how a commissioner said “I don’t want to throw any more money in that hole.”

“Now so many people care, y’all are like viciously arguing about it — how is the best way to care about our lake. So you know, from our perspective and what we wanted to accomplish, I feel like this is a success,” Taylor said. “It’s messy; it’s a mess. We got a lot to figure out. But man, people care, y’all care. And that’s exciting.”

A sandhill crane feeds a tasty morsel to its newly hatched chick near the shore of Lake Helen Lake. A pair of cranes successfully nested at the lake this year.

Invasive vegetation clogs waterways and chokes out native plant and animal life. If there is enough invasive aquatic vegetation, oxygen levels in the water can be reduced enough to cause large fish die-offs.

Despite all this, invasive species can have beneficial aspects.

For instance, water hyacinth, a massive problem in Florida, is an excellent filtrator. In conjunction with NASA, Walt Disney World once used water hyacinth to clean wastewater.

A project in the 1980s then harvested the plants to create biogas, a renewable energy resource.

Hydrilla, an aggressive underwater weed, is rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and is dried and sold in health-food stores.

For humans, the plants have a dual existence: They can be both detrimental lake-killers and saleable commodities.

Usually, there is not just one problem in a waterbody. The presence of more than one invasive plant is likely, and even if these plants are eradicated, they can reappear. With boats, birds and even the wind unwittingly transporting species, the battle against aggressive invasive vegetation has no clear end.

And no one treatment plan can address all the problems.

Water hyacinth, a floating aquatic, can feasibly be harvested solely by mechanical means (via boat-tractors, which scoop the plants off the top), but hydrilla lies beneath the surface.
Even pulling out hydrilla by hand is not effective, as it will reproduce from any remaining fragments, including tubers left behind in the soil.

Treatment plans for hydrilla are often three-fold:

Chemical — targeted spraying of herbicides
Mechanical — removal of dead hydrilla, so it does not fall to the bottom and become dead muck
Biological — introduction of grass carp, which eat remaining hydrilla and prevent unchecked growth

Removing hydrilla in a lake without chemicals is difficult, and can require raking and dredging of lake bottoms, an expensive project that can be destructive to native wildlife.

Even then, that would not necessarily address invasive plant species that dwell near the shorelines, like bulrush and torpedo grass.

And, if even a fragment is left, some species will replant themselves and emerge again.

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