A group of Lake Helen residents have raised objections about the spraying of herbicides in Lake Helen lake to combat invasive plants, like the highly problematic aquatic plant hydrilla.
The lake was sprayed earlier this year by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at the behest of the Committee to Save Lake Helen Lake, a citizen-led initiative to save the water body.
But, in some spots, the hydrilla is beginning to grow back and the FWC plans to spray targeted areas again.
That plan led to an outcry, primarily online, where an anti-spraying petition published at www.change.org was shared on Facebook. So far, that petition has garnered 1,451 signatures. But, because online petitions can be signed by anyone, it’s unclear how many of the signatures are from Lake Helen residents.
The petition charges that mechanical removal of vegetation is effective and safer.
Some mechanical removal of dead hydrilla already occurred, back in June. An aquatic tractor, which costs $5,000 for a few hours, removed the dead plants to prevent them from falling to the lake bottom and becoming muck.
At the same time, a handful of committee volunteers manually removed at least 90 cubic yards of vegetation from the shoreline over the course of two months.
But hydrilla is extremely difficult to deal with precisely because of its tenacious nature — any leftover tubers, buried in the bottom of the lake, could hide and resprout.
Members of the Committee to Save Lake Helen Lake were visibly frustrated at the Lake Helen City Commission meeting Nov. 14, when the debate over spraying was brought up by City Administrator Becky Witte.
“It sounds like the people who made the petition chose social media over speaking to us, and maybe if that had happened, all of this drama and stress that everyone is experiencing would have been avoided,” committee member Jennifer Hopton-Villalobos said.
But critics of the spraying do not view the herbicides as safe.
Lake Helen resident Christy Barnes said she moved to Lake Helen to start an organic farm after her kids grew ill after a lake near her previous residence was sprayed.
“We moved here to be safe, and now it’s right beside us,” Barnes said.
She asked the City Commission to hold off for a month so she could gather supporting research.
If the City Commission asked FWC to hold off on the spraying, the committee feared FWC would take its services elsewhere, allowing the hydrilla to get the upper hand again, and undoing two years of effort.
Around half-a-dozen members of the committee were on hand to take turns defending the project to the City Commission.
They had three major points — first, the herbicides are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and have undergone rigorous scientific testing before use; second, that to be successful, the lake cleanup project employed both chemical and mechanical methods (and that biological prevention methods, like the introduction of sterile grass carp, were imminent); and, third, that mechanical removal alone would not be effective.
“It’s all coming back. I’m over there as much as I can pulling it, but we don’t have enough people coming. If the hundreds of people all over social media came and helped us — sure, we could do it without chemicals, but that’s not happening. People are not,” Hopton-Villalobos said.
Hopton-Villalobos pointed out that the aquatic tractor is indiscriminate when it comes to plants and other aquatic life, unlike the herbicide that targets only hydrilla, and that, ultimately, mechanical removal alone was not cost-effective or feasible.
“We’re not going to be able to pay for this boat, that is like a lawn mower in the water, to just come every week and mow the lake. It’s just going to come back. So we have to be logical about what we do,” she said.
After a two-hour back-and-forth among residents and commissioners, the City Commission unanimously voted to support the next planned herbicide treatment and the introduction of grass carp, and to have FWC come to a meeting before any future spraying takes place.