Category Archives: The Red Hills of Florida & Georgia

Quail Hunting and Accidental Conservation in the Red Hills

Welcome to Part 1 (of 10) of Roaming the Red Hills, which originally aired on the March 31 episode of WFSU’s Local Routes.  Over ten 3-minute videos, we’ll explore the natural soul of the Red Hills of Florida and Georgia, from the pine uplands down to its rivers, lakes, and farms.  Thanks to Tracy Horenbein for creating original compositions for this video series.  The series is narrated by Jim McMurtry. 

Funding for Roaming the Red Hills was provided by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

If I ignore the 1960s era Volkswagen Thing trailing us, I can almost imagine that it’s 100 years ago on Elsoma Plantation.  All I see is longleaf pine forest in every direction.  Everyone is on horseback and in matching white jackets.   And I’m bumping along in a horse-drawn wagon that remembers World War I.  We’re on a quail hunt in the Red Hills. Continue reading

Roaming the Red Hills | Longleaf, Lakes, Fire, & Food

Below is a quick preview of our upcoming series, Roaming the Red Hills. The segments will air in three installments on WFSU-TV’s Local Routes, starting on Thursday, March 31 at 7:30 pm ET.  Meanwhile, here on the Ecology Blog we’ll take our usual deeper look at the places, people, and ecology featured in each segment.  Thank you to Gary Asbell for stopping our kayak and grabbing his guitar to sing his song about the Ochlockonee River, which scores most of the promo below. You also hear a little bit of our Local Routes theme by Belle and the Band.  Tallahassee’s Tracy Horenbein (a regular guest on our OutLoud show from 1999-2007) has composed original music for the series.  Funding for Roaming the Red Hills was provided by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
For a segment on duck hunting in Lake Iamonia, we met at 5 am, covered ourselves from head to toe in camouflage, and waited for ducks in the early morning sunlight.

For a segment on duck hunting on Lake Iamonia, we met at 5 am, covered ourselves from head to toe in camouflage, and waited for ducks in the early morning sunlight.  Photo credit, Georgia Ackerman, Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.

Our mission: to capture the natural soul of the Red Hills region in ten short videos.  To me, this is the best kind of project, hitting all of the geek centers in the brain associated with producing ecology videos.  We see a 7-day-old endangered red cockaded woodpecker, featherless and reptilian, get banded.  We kayak a rugged four mile stretch of Ochlockonee River, on the Georgia side, where we spend as much time climbing over logs as in the boat (and get serenaded along the way).  We off road through a longleaf forest in a 100-year-old horse-drawn wagon, the wheels of which can only be repaired by the Pennsylvania Amish.  And then there’s the thrill of running through a burning forest with a camera. Continue reading

giant swallowtail caterpillar

Butterfly Watching and Research in the Red Hills

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Monarchs are cool, but they’re the only butterflies we see in this area that aren’t 100% local.  We trek through a couple of different habitat types and get a hint of the diversity of butterflies we have here in the Red Hills of Florida and Georgia.  Scroll down for a complete list of species we saw in the video.  Music for the piece comes from Haiqiong Deng‘s performance on Local Routes.  She performed two songs; the other song aired in the same episode as this segment.  If you missed it, you can watch it on the Local Routes page.

Examining some torn up leaves in my garden one night, I started down a path that led me to become somewhat of a butterfly enthusiast.  My wife and I had recommitted ourselves to making full use of the space we had to grow veggies, and part of that was some good old-fashioned pest squashing.  Of course, some bugs are beneficial, so I did my due diligence before pulling the trigger.  In other words, I went on Google.   Continue reading

Canoeing the Aucilla: A Red Hills River Steeped in History

Video: We travel down the Aucilla River, the eastern boundary of the Red Hills region, the dark water of which preserves some of the nation’s oldest archeological sites. It’s also a challenging kayak and canoe trail.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Until paddling the Aucilla River during the production of this video, I had never had to portage on a river.  For non-paddlers, portage is when you take your canoe or kayak out of the water to navigate around an obstacle.  And on that day, there were plenty of obstacles.  The Aucilla River Paddling Trail Guide recommends the river be paddled by those with intermediate to advanced skills.  Fallen trees and river bends, sometimes in a tricky proximity, had us pivoting at sharp angles.  This was less of a challenge for the three kayakers on our trip, but David Ward and I each ferried a photographer on heavier canoes.  If you’re looking for a Florida river on which to peacefully coast, this isn’t it.  This is a more adventurous river; and one with thousands of years of human usage. Continue reading

Volunteers’ Labor of Love: The Wolf Creek Trout Lily Preserve

Video: The dimpled trout lily isn’t a rare plant, but it is rare to see them as far south as Grady, County Georgia. There, volunteers from the Magnolia chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society set up a preserve for an unusually large concentration of the bright yellow winter flower. We visit the preserve and talk to members of the Magnolia chapter about the plants in our biodiverse region.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Tiny little flowers; big vistas seen from an airplane.  You’re not going to see our forests’  unique flowers from a plane or in a satellite image, not without serious advances in telescopy that would include the ability to see through tree cover.  But there is a lot to be learned about what makes these flowers thrive by taking a look at a larger picture.  In the video above, Wilson Baker presents a theory that attributes a concentration of dimpled trout lilies to the geology of the Red Hills region.  In the interview that followed that segment in tonight’s Dimensions broadcast, Amy Jenkins explains how she uses aerial photographs to better understand fire dependent habitats in the Apalachicola National Forest.  That includes flowers like the highly endangered Harper’s beauty and the diversity of carnivorous plants that call the forest home. Continue reading

Exploring the Small Farms of Florida’s Red Hills Part 2

Over the past couple of months we’ve made a foray into local agriculture, an industry that’s of critical importance to the ecology of our area.   We’re now in the process of setting up some new adventures that get us back on the water- both salt and fresh.  And of course, our EcoShakespeare segments will begin airing January 28 on Dimensions (before streaming here).  We’re always looking for new ways to interact with the outdoors, and we always want to hear your suggestions for how we can accomplish this.  Don’t be shy about leaving comments!

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Miccosukee Root Cellar strives to be a farm to table restaurant, buying from several local food growers.  Chef Owen Hardin uses Thomasville, GA pecans to make both the ice cream filling and crust of this pie.

Miccosukee Root Cellar is a farm to table restaurant, buying from several local food growers. Chef Owen Hardin uses Thomasville, GA pecans to make both the ice cream filling and crust of this pie.

“Eating local means eating seasonal,” Katie Harris told me in an unused clip from her interview.  That means that if you want to go full locavore, you’ll soon be saying goodbye to fresh tomatoes and yellow squash and hello to chard and broccoli.  Katie co-manages the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance with Louise Divine, who we interviewed in part one of this video.  Part of their public outreach is to provide recipes and seasonal calendars to consumers who may not be used to limiting themselves to food that grows within a few counties of their house.  The food that will grow in north Florida will vary with our seasons, and so eating locally means adjusting to what’s available.  Eating locally is one of those things that’s easy to get behind.  You’re supporting the local economy.  And you’re supporting the environment, aren’t you?  Let’s take a closer look.

The primary environmental argument often used in favor of eating locally are the “food miles” traveled by the food.  Tomatoes from a Red Hills farm may travel 20-30 miles to get to my house.  Tomatoes grown in Mexico, which you may see at your grocery store of choice, have traveled over 1,000 miles by truck or plane to get here.  A lot of gasoline is used to transport food around the world.  A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council on the emissions of California’s imported foods found that in 2005, 250,000 tons of global warming gasses were produced by incoming food products, as much as 40,000 cars.  And that’s just one state in one country.

But food miles are just one factor in the equation.  A post on the Harvard Extension Blog looked at data for total carbon used in food production and found that, overall, most emissions occur from the production of food rather than their transport to market.  This is especially true of meat products, which alone account for more greenhouse emissions than all cars and trucks on earth.  Cows, sheep, and goats belch methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and a lot of energy goes into producing the grain they eat.  That’s food miles and the fertilizer it takes to grow the grain.  Which gets us to how produce is grown.

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Aaron Suko, co-manager at Full Earth Farm, lays ribbon hose along an unused row. Drip irrigation uses water more efficiently than center pivot irrigation, a technique used on many large farms.

In a 2008 article in the Guardian on the “Myth of Food Miles,” green beans grown in Nigeria are presented as a greener choice for UK shoppers than their own local product.  A professor they interview touts Nigerian growing methods, which don’t use tractors (all manual labor, no gas) or cow manure, and use low-impact irrigation.  The Harvard Extension blog post referenced a study that showed lamb grown in New Zealand is a greener choice for UK shoppers than their own local lamb, because New Zealand lambs are pastured (eating the grass that grows on the ground) and live on farms that use hydroelectric power (This blog post from Oregon Public Broadcasting, while ultimately agreeing that grass is a greener feed for cattle, does a good job of outlining the controversy over which feed is more environmentally friendly).

While sustainable practices are not a prerequisite for membership in the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance, The farms we’ve highlighted do practice organic techniques (the lone meat producer we featured in part 1 of this video, Golden Acres Ranch, isn’t organic but aims to be “all natural”).  In our Sharing Water Conference segment, we see how Katie (Full Earth Farm, Quincy) and Herman Holley (Turkey Hill Farm, Tallahassee) prepare compost intended to provide fertilization to their plants without contributing nitrate runoff to local waterways.  They both use tractors for certain tasks but, as you see in the video above, do a lot of work manually as well.  As Katie’s co-manager at Full Earth, Aaron Suko, says in the video, they can be efficient by planting at the right times, hoeing weeds when they’re small, and being organized.  “You just got to work smarter, and not harder.”  This, they tell me, is the key to small, sustainable farming.

There are advances and techniques that both conventional and organic farmers are exploring to increase efficiency and help preserve natural resources.  Here are a few that we’ve covered on WFSU-TV:

  • My fellow WFSU producer Mike Plummer recently visited the IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center in Marianna.  There, he learned about their research into reducing methane emissions from cows.  In another segment, he looks at their research into better selective breeding of cattle.
  • Mike also visited the IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy, where they are working on a sod based rotation system that aims to improve irrigation by alternating plots of bahia grass with crops.  They claim that if the techniques were to be adopted, they could reduce water usage of farms along the Flint River to a degree that would greatly increase freshwater flows downstream on the Apalachicola.
  • P1070982-smallerThe IFAS Research Center in Quincy is also looking at satsuma oranges as a potential crop for north Florida.  They are cold hardier, meaning they would perform better here than other varieties grown in the state.  In fact, some Red Hills farms are already growing this Japanese variety.
  • Red Hills farms are experimenting with rotating different crops that would help build soil.  Wayne Hawthorne at Blue Ridge Farm has planted sodbuster radish in his outdoor beds.  This New Zealand import has roots that are supposed to break up hard soils (like the red clay that is prevalent in our area), add a natural fungicide to the soil, and then tap into minerals deep in the soils without tilling.  He sent some of his seeds to a friend working at an IFAS extension in Ruskin, Florida, where they’ll perform their own experiments.
  • Both Turkey Hill and Full Earth experiment with cover crops.  Full Earth’s Aaron explained to us the benefits.  Cover crops are planted in plots not currently in production.  Their roots keep the soil from eroding.  Sometimes they plant sunflowers, which attract pollinators.  They also plant legumes, which naturally add nitrogen to soil (lessening the need for added fertility).
  • Also in the aforementioned Sharing Water Conference video, we visited Simpson’s Nursery, which uses Monticello’s reclaimed water and recycles water on site to reduce aquifer withdrawals.  This is by no means a small local farm (every Red Hills Farm together might fit in its 1400 acres), and its water usage is considerable.

Exploring the Small Farms of Florida’s Red Hills

Tennessee Fainting Goats and Red Zinger Tea! There are many interesting things to be found on small farms. Watch as we visit Golden Acres Ranch in Monticello and Turkey Hill Farm in Tallassee’s Baum Community.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

As I was starting preproduction for this piece, my wife Amy prepared a map of Red Hills Small Farm Alliance member farms.  It’s interesting to see the proximity of these farms to water.  Agriculture is of key importance to our water, from the withdrawals farms make from our aquifer to any runoff they might send back to waterways, into sinkholes, and back into the aquifer.  Every farm interacts with its natural surroundings in different ways.

Louise Divine harvests Roselle at Turkey Hill Farm.

Louise Divine harvests Roselle at Turkey Hill Farm.

The Red Hills Small Farm Alliance is a collective of small farms located within 100 miles of Tallahassee, mostly within what is considered to be the Greater Red Hills Region.  This range encompasses several watersheds, from the Wakulla Springshed to the Ochlockonee, St. Marks, and Aucilla rivers.  Many of these waterways have been the setting for previous EcoAdventures, and so have  the protected lands around them.  In the video above, we explore a different kind of outdoor setting that has the potential to either protect or degrade our water.

These small farms make for an interesting alternative kind of outdoor activity.  Many are open to the public to varying degrees (please do call first), and especially so during New Leaf Market’s Farm Tour.  On October 25 and 26, Red Hills farms and other local food producers will open the doors for the public to see.  Many will have rides, treats, and activities for kids.  As I mentioned in my previous post, kids are becoming increasingly out of touch with nature.  The same thing is happening with people and their understanding of where food comes from.  This is part of why these farms are welcoming visitors.  They care about how food is grown, and they often love to share it with you.

The Red Hills Small Farm Alliance has created an event that dovetails with Farm Tour, Seven Days of Local Delights.  Seven Days is a series of workshops, cooking classes, and film screenings like- shameless plug- WFSU’s Oyster Doctors playing at Tall Timbers.

Many of these farms are organic, or at the very least are dedicated to a sustainable way of growing food.  This isn’t a requirement for joining, but RHSFA CO-Executive Directors Louise Divine (Turkey Hill Farm, Tallahassee) and Katie Harris (Full Earth Farm, Quincy) make sure to offer opportunities to learn about sustainable practices through their Growers Circle workshops.  In the video above, we see a little about how Turkey Hill and Golden Acres Ranch raise their products.  Bobbie Golden decided that organic standards were a little too stringent for Golden Acres, but her animals are kept free from chemicals and hormones, and have space to roam.  On the other hand, Louise and Herman Holley at Turkey Hill are fully dedicated to organic agriculture.  And as we find in our next segment, set to air on October 29 (7:30 pm ET on WFSU-TV), Bobbie, Louise, and Herman take great care to see that their actions on the farm protect our water supply.

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Bobbie Golden reflects by her sinkhole at Golden Acres ranch.

In this next segment, we revisit the recent Sharing Water Conference win Monticello.  We visit a Monticello water treatment plant that connects directly to Simpsons Nursery.  They have a novel system for reclaiming and reusing water that intends to both conserve water usage and keep wastewater out of the aquifer.  We also revisit the farms featured in the video above.  Golden Acres has some sensitive wetlands on their property, which has Bobbie Golden thinking about water issues.  And Herman shows us how he makes compost.   His process uses materials that might otherwise sit in landfills and creates a means of fertilizing plants that minimizes the flow of nutrients into local waterways (for them, Black Creek, a tributary of the St. Marks River).

Also coming up, Shakespeare will take over the Ecology Blog for the month of January.  Details will be released soon, but it’s a different kind of project for us, one that involves biologists and actors, breathtaking vistas and the words of a man who was surprisingly into nature.  Also, I follow up on my previous post, where I took my three-year-old son kayaking on the Wakulla River.  His real water obsession is the Apalachicola River.  He and I joined RiverTrek 2014 for a couple of miles, camping and kayaking at Owl Creek.

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Lake Report: Leon County’s Cleanest and Dirtiest Lakes

The WFSU Ecology Blog has an updated Leon County Lake Report, posted in December of 2016 (Click here).

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Last week on our Water Moves EcoAdventure, we showed images of polluted waterways south of Tallahassee. We in this area benefit from a large amount of protected lands, which surround us with scenic views as well as protect many of our rivers and streams.  But Tallahassee itself is fairly urban; our paved roadways move pollutants into drainage ditches and sloughs instead of letting them sink into the ground to be filtered by the aquifer.  Some waterways are more affected than others.  Our lakes and rivers provide us with fresh fish and recreation; when they become compromised by algal blooms and other pollutants, they affect the health and economy of the communities around the resources.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled this list of lakes in the area, with data for each on cleanliness and safety concerns. We’re looking at three things:

  1. Nutrient load for each lake. We’ll link to a PDF of a report published by Leon County Public Works, which was compiled by Johnny Richardson (who we interviewed in the Water Moves video). I can’t link to the individual pages, but I will list them with the link back to the document if you’re interested in reading more.
  2. How safe is it to eat the fish in each lake? For this, I’m using a report created by the Florida Department of Health (DOH). This is also a PDF, and I’ll be referencing it in the same way.
  3. Toxic algal blooms. DOH has an Algal Bloom tracker which lists three locations in Leon County. During the rainy season, these blooms will get flushed, but the locations listed have had persistent nutrient problems and are still a risk to bloom when the weather dries.

North Leon: The Red Hills

Our largest lakes are located in the north of the county.  This is a sparsely populated area, protected to the north by over 300,000 acres of forested land held on hunting plantations.  Our recent Red Hills EcoAdventure explored some of these waterways and the land protecting them.  These are the cleanest lakes in Leon County.

Lake Iamonia (5,554 acres, the largest lake in Leon County)

Florida Fish & Wildlife's Michael Hill takes me out on Lake Iamonia near tall Timbers Research Station.

Florida Fish & Wildlife’s Michael Hill takes me out on Lake Iamonia near Tall Timbers Research Station.

Nutrients: The report we cite was issued by Leon County in 2011.  The report uses a measurement developed by FDEP, called a Trophic State Index, to determine the health of a waterbody.  It’s a formula that weighs nutrient levels (phosphorous, nitrogen, and chlorophyl a), with a score of 60 or higher denoting an impaired waterbody (40 for clearwater lakes, which are lower nutrient systems).  Lake Iamonia’s scores over the last few years are well blow that, averaging in the low 40s (chart on Page 64).

Fish Safety: According to the DOH Freshwater Fish Guide, this is a fairly healthy lake.  Florida lakes and rivers are considered to have low to medium mercury levels, so the guide puts limits on how much they recommend that an individual eats.  They recommend most fish caught in Iamonia be eaten no more than twice a week (page 16) for most species (slightly less for children and pregnant/ trying to get pregnant mothers).  This is as high as they go for any Florida waterbody.

Other Concerns: As we learned during the Red Hills Water EcoAdventure, the lake’s sinkhole was impounded in the 1930s.  While the dam has been removed, there is ecological damage that could take generations to fix.

Lake Miccosukee (6,257 acres.  It forms the northeast border of Leon County, but is located in Jefferson County)

Nutrients: It averages in the 50s on the TSI index (page 174-5); below the impairment level but higher than Iamonia due to an elevation of one particular nutrient, chlorophyl a.  This may be related to the dam constructed around its sinkhole in 1954.  It’s a story you see on many area lakes, playing out slightly differently on each.  Impounded lakes end up with floating islands of vegetation, tussocks, which block the sun and add organic material to the sediment.  This vegetation might be responsible for the elevated chlorophyl.

Fish Safety: The high amount of vegetation on the surface has reduced the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, and so there aren’t a lot of fish in the lake.  Of the two species listed on the DOH document, it recommends no more than twice a week (page 18) for bluegill  and once a week for largemouth bass.  This is typical for bass throughout the document; some fish store more mercury in their fat cells.

Lake Jackson (4,000 acres)

Stormwater runoff in Elanor Klapp-Phipps Park. This plot of land is adjacent to Lake Jackson, which is why it was purchased by the Northwest Florida Water Management District. Having protected land next to the lake reduced urban runoff into it.

Stormwater runoff in Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park. This plot of land is adjacent to Lake Jackson, which is why it was purchased by the Northwest Florida Water Management District. Having protected land next to the lake reduces urban runoff into it.

Nutrients: Over the course of the last few years, the color of the lake’s surface has clarified, so it technically qualifies as a clearwater lake with a lower TSI threshold.  As such, it would be considered an impaired lake, averaging in the 40s on the TSI index (page 95).  The report questions using the lower threshold, citing “the dynamic nature of the lake and the recent drought” (pages 95-96).  Part of the change in color is attributed to changes in stormwater management, which have reduced runoff to the lake.

Fish Safety: Bluegill & redear sunfish, twice a week.  Largemouth bass, once a week (page 16).

Lake Hall (182 acres, a part of the Lake Jackson Watershed)

Tall Timbers' Georgia Ackerman teaches me to stand up paddleboard on Lake Hall, as part of our Red Hills Water EcoAdventure.

Tall Timbers’ Georgia Ackerman teaches me to stand up paddleboard on Lake Hall, as part of our Red Hills Water EcoAdventure.

Nutrients: Lake Hall is one of the cleanest lakes in Leon County, averaging in the high 20s (page 91) on the TSI.  As a clearwater lake, it’s threshold for impairment is 40.  Lake Hall is partially located in Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park.  There are some restrictions on the use of motors on Lake Hall.

Fish Safety: Not listed.  The lake is fished pretty regularly, however.

Middle Leon County

Lake Lafayette 

Dead vegetation on the surface of Lower lake Lafayette. The segmentation of the lake in the early twentieth century has affected its ability to "dry down." Many Leon county lakes naturally empty every few years, and the plants and animals that live in the lake have adapted to and thrive in such conditions. Impounding Lake Lafayette has caused floating mats of vegetation to form on its surface, disrupting the lake's ecology. Clearing it is an involved and expensive process.

Dead vegetation on the surface of Lower Lake Lafayette. The segmentation of the lake in the early twentieth century has affected its ability to “dry down.” Many Leon county lakes naturally empty into sinkholes every few years, and the plants and animals that live in the lakes have adapted to and thrive in such conditions. Impounding Lake Lafayette has caused floating mats of vegetation to form on its surface, disrupting the lake’s ecology. Clearing the vegetation is an involved and expensive process.

As we learned on our Lafayette Heritage Trail Park EcoAdventure last year, the historical Lake Lafayette has been segmented into four smaller lakes by earthen dams.  As with other lakes in our area (Iamonia, Jackson, and Miccosukee), its sinkhole was separated to prevent the lake from draining.  The sinkhole is in Upper Lake Lafayette.  The other lakes are Piney Z. Lake, the Alford Arm, and Lower Lake Lafayette (which feeds the St. Marks River).  Impounding the lake has resulted in tussocks and accumulation of mucky sediment, as in the other lakes.

This lake is north of the Cody Escarpment and is considered a part of the Red Hills.  I classify it differently because of its more urban setting.

Nutrients :

  • Upper Lake Lafayette: Based on its color, its TSI index is 40.  It regularly exceeds that threshold, averaging about 50 TSI (page 132) and going into the 90s in 2005.  This part of the lake drains housing developments and is adjacent to the Walmart/ Costco shopping center on Mahan Drive.
  • Piney Z. Lake: Like Upper Lafayette, Piney Z.’s threshold is 40 TSI.  The lake regularly exceeds that, with scores typically between 50-70 TSI (page 136), and sometimes higher.  In late 2013, WFSU-FM reporter Lynn hatter reported on a toxic algal bloom on Piney Z.  The Department of Health’s Algal Bloom Tracking Tool still has a mark on the lake, though I don’t know how often that data gets updated.  The lake is bordered by Piney Z. Plantation housing development, whose newsletter advised residents on methods to reduce their nutrient contribution to the lake.
  • Alford Arm: Alford Arm drains the Miccosukee Greenway, the J.R. Alford Greenway, and the Welaunee Plantations.  It’s threshold is 60 TSI, and its average TSI is in the low 40s (page 140).
  • Lower Lake Lafayette: Its threshold is 60 TSI, and it has only exceeded that once in the last ten years, in 2004.  While its score came perilously close to 60 for a couple of years after that, since 2006 its TSI score has dropped into the low 40s/ upper 30s (page 146).

Fish Safety: Only Piney Z. is listed, recommending no more than two a week (page 27) for all species. I’m not sure if this data was collected before or after the toxic algal bloom.

Lake Talquin (6,963.  It is a larger lake than Iamonia, but it is an artificial lake created by a hydroelectric dam on the Ochlockonee River)

Nutrients: The lake averages in the low 50s on the TSI index, below its threshold of 60 (page 253).

Fish Safety: Two a week for all species except largemouth bass (page 22).

Lake Talquin is recognized as an outstanding body of water by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The Bradford Chain of Lakes

The Bradford chain is comprised of three connected lakes: Bradford, Hiawatha, and Cascade.

The first time I ever paddled a canoe or kayak was in my mid-twenties, at the FSU Seminole Reservation on Lake Bradford. Wanting to get my son Max out on the water at a younger age, I took him out there last year.

The first time I ever paddled a canoe or kayak was in my mid-twenties, at the FSU Seminole Reservation on Lake Bradford. Wanting to get my son Max out on the water at a younger age, I took him there last year.

Nutrients:

  • Lake Bradford: It averages in the 40s on the TSI index (page 191), which is below its threshold of 60.  It has risen since 2006; prior to then it had averaged in the 30s (the report theorizes that this may be due to runoff created  by Tropical Storm Faye in late 2008).  Lake Bradford sits between the FSU Seminole Reservation and the Tallahassee Museum, and drains the residential area between Orange Avenue and Capital Circle.
  • Lake Hiawatha: The lake averages in the 40s on the TSI index (page 194), below its threshold of 60.  While paddling the corridor between Lake Bradford and Lake Hiawatha, you pass the Florida panther enclosure in the Tallahassee Museum.
  • Lake Cascade: Lake Cascade Averages in the low 30s on the TSI index (page 197), well below its threshold of 60.  This lake is susceptible to drought.  The report lists gaps where water could not be collected due to low levels.

Fish Safety: Not listed.

South Leon

Lake Munson (255 acres)

The sad thing about Lake Munson is that it is really an attractive lake. It is believed to have once been a cypress swamp, that had its water impounded in the 1800s. It is still ringed by cypress trees.

The sad thing about Lake Munson is that it is really an attractive lake. It is believed to have once been a cypress swamp, that had its water impounded in the 1800s. It is still ringed by cypress trees.

Nutrients: “The lake has a history of severe water quality and ecologic problems including fish kills, algal blooms, floating aquatic vegetation, high nutrient and bacterial levels, low game fish productivity, sediment contamination, and depressed oxygen levels (Maristany and Bartel, 1989)” (page 206).  Lake Munson routinely exceeds 60 on the TSI index (page 208), though it will dip below the threshold seasonally, sometimes for over a year.  When I visited the lake earlier in the month, Johnny Richardson told me that the heavy rain we’ve gotten does help to flush the lake.  The DOH Algal Bloom tracking tool reports toxic blooms on both Lake Munson and on Munson Slough to the north of the lake (the slough also continues to the south through the Apalachicola National Forest, partially draining into Wakulla Springs).  The tool merely reports that there have been blooms recently.  The blooms had washed away when I visited, but Mr. Richardson expects them back in the summer.

Fish Safety: The DOH guide recommends no more than twice a week for all species but black crappie (page 19).  This is their recommendation based on mercury level.  There is a warning for PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyl, an endocrine disruptor, page 35).  It recommends, based on PCB concerns in largemouth bass, no more than one meal a month.  That’s if you’re willing to put any amount of it in your body to begin with.

Additional Concerns: At several points over the last ten years, Lake Munson has exceeded the acceptable levels of fecal coliform (page 216).  Fecal coliform is caused by human or animal waste, and an excess could be due to septic tank failures or sewage overflows.

So that’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of our local lakes.  There is plenty of good recreation and fishing to be had, but it is helpful to know which bodies of water present potential health risks.  Most of the problems are preventable, if people are willing to make changes.  Some of the changes aren’t too much of a burden, and others have benefits beyond reducing personal pollution.  We’ll look at some of those in the coming weeks.

Red Hills Lakes | Kayak, Hike, & SUP Where Aquifer Recharges

The name Red Hills is perhaps underused by those of us who actually live here. That’s why the folks at Tall Timbers set out to reintroduce us to the area between the Ochlockonee and Aucilla Rivers, from Thomasville to Tallahassee to Monticello. In defining this eco-region and the benefits we receive from living here, I gained a new perspective on our longer running exploration of the Forgotten Coast and its own gifts and uniqueness. I’ve often written about miles of unspoiled coastline and how that benefits our seafood industry. But any large healthy tree has an equally large root system that we don’t see, and for our estuaries these are miles of unspoiled river banks, sloughs, springs, and lakes. In our last EcoAdventure we hiked along sloughs in the backlands of the Apalachicola River floodplain, little fingers reaching into the nutrient rich muck to send it on its way to the bay. In the video above, we visit the lakes of north Leon County, through which water enters the Floridan Aquifer. This is our water, the water I’m drinking as I write this. It’s the water that feeds our springs, such as those that in turn feed the Wacissa River. That water emerges from Wakulla Springs, which flows into the Wakulla River and down to Apalachee Bay.

Michael Hill took me for a spin on Lake Iamonia.

Michael Hill took me for a spin on Lake Iamonia.

This adventure was about more than just the lakes, which were great to kayak and SUP. These lakes are protected by forested land that filters storm water runoff and buffers them from pollution. That’s an ecosystem service the land provides. That’s a value that we receive, as consumers of the water. We also receive the benefit of having the land to visit as parkland or, for the hunters who own private forested lands north of Tallahassee, to hunt animals sheltered in the habitat.

There is often this tension between ecology and economy, a perception that land has more value if it can be sold as real estate or built upon with stores and offices. That’s why there has been a push in recent years to put a dollar amount on ecosystem services. In our collaboration with Randall Hughes and David Kimbro, we’ve cited a study that determined the value of a salt marsh. Tall Timbers has been promoting a similar study conducted at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry an Natural Resources on the services provided by the Red Hills. For a detailed look at how Dr. Rebecca Moore determined the value of services, click here.

The total value of Red Hills ecosystem services determined by the study are $1.136 billion per year.  We focus on groundwater recharge ($229 million) and water supply protection ($615 million) in the video. Another service is pollination, at a value of $60 million. That means that the forested land around town supports pollinating species like bees and butterflies to the advantage of both farmers and us amateur gardeners. Aesthetic value is listed as $163 million.

The one thing that has surprised me the most since I started talking to Tall Timbers about this piece is that much of the forested land providing these services is privately owned. Tall Timbers estimates that there are 445,000 acres of forested land in the greater Red Hills Region. Over 300,000 acres are privately held on largely contiguous quail hunting properties. Many of these properties were purchased in the 1800s and early 1900s, sparing them from logging and preserving old growth coastal plain forest. These forests, and the bobwhite quail that live there, are what drew people here.

The Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy

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Henry L. Beadle on Lake Iamonia, 1924. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

One of the people drawn to the Red Hills was Henry L. Beadle. His hunting plantation on Lake Iamonia is where, in 1958, Tall Timbers was established. It was his desire to have a place to conduct research on fire ecology and its effect on “quail, turkey and other wildlife, as well as on vegetation of value as cover and food for wildlife.” While hunters in the area had made use of fire to manage the longleaf/ wiregrass ecosystems on their property, it wasn’t until fairly recently that it became a mainstream practice (get two land managers together and see if they don’t start trading fire stories). Tall Timbers mission is to “foster exemplary land stewardship” while also “respecting the rights and recognizing the responsibilities of private property ownership.” They are advocates of “smart growth,” development with a broader view of economic feasibility. That means factoring in the value of ecosystem services when planning new development.

Lake Iamonia

It seemed like the appropriate place to begin the adventure. It’s Leon County’s largest natural lake, and it has an interesting hydrology. Michael Hill from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission met us on the lake to talk about the work he and FWC have done to restore the lake. I met Michael for the first time last fall on Lake Lafayette. Like Lakes Iamonia, Jackson, and Miccosukee, Lake Lafayette has a sinkhole that connects to the Floridan Aquifer. All of these lakes had natural dry down cycles, where the lake would cyclically empty and refill. In the early twentieth century, people viewed this draining as an ecological catastrophe.  They set out to “save the lakes.” They built earthen dams to isolate the sinkholes from their lakes. This kept the lakes full, but disrupted much of their ecology. On Lake Lafayette, Michael showed us the effects of a lake not being able to go through its normal drought/ rain cycles. Muck builds up on the bottoms of these lakes, and floating islands of vegetation called tussocks form. This alters the habitat for fish and other species. And removing tussocks is an expensive process involving herbicides and heavy machinery.

Water overflows from the Ochlockonee River on February 27, 2013.

Water flows under the twin bridges on Meridian Road, from the Ochlockonee River into Lake Iamonia.  February 27, 2013.  Photo by Michael Hill, FWC.

Lake Iamonia’s dam failed, however, and the gates were removed. This allowed the lake to dry down again, and for FWC to come in and scrape the muck off of the bottom. “We’d seen that there were two to four feet of Muck,” Michael told a gathered group of Tall Timbers employees. “Muck is aquatic plants. It’s at advanced stages of decomposition.” When the lake dries down naturally, the sun dries the bottom. When it doesn’t, muck accumulates. Seeds start growing in it, and it starts to float on the surface of the water as islands. The fish that spawn on the lake bottom prefer a sandier surface, so muck inhibits them. During Iamonia’s last dry down, FWC removed 23 acres of muck. Last year, they removed 25 more. But just as the lake was full for 40 years, Michael thinks it might take another 40 or 50 more for the muck to completely disappear.

The other interesting feature of the lake is its relationship with the Ochlockonee River. While the river does not flow directly into Lake Iamonia, it does feed the lake by overflowing into it. Michael shared some photos of this flooding, which mainly passes under Meridian Road at the twin bridges that run alongside the lake. Iamonia dries down every seven years, and it is filled by rain and by the flooding Ochlockonee.

Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park

Forested wetlands in Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park

Forested wetlands in Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park.

After we left Michael, we went not to Leon County’s other major lake, but to land adjacent to it. It was a cooperative purchase between the City of Tallahassee and the Northwest Florida Water Management District (NFWMD). “Their interest was the activity centers; the ball fields and the soccer complex,” Said NFWMD’s Tyler Macmillan. “Our interest was a passive recreation area that protected Lake Jackson.” Hiking through when we did, during the rainy season, we saw a variety of water features at Klapp-Phipps Park. The were small creeks and swamps as well as places where stormwater runoff ran alongside or directly on the path. One number I found interesting in the Ecosystem services report was the value of urban/ suburban forested wetlands. Rural forested wetlands are valued around $4,600 an acre annually; those in urban/ suburban areas are valued at $8,200. The reason for the disparity is that urban wetlands are less common and, in a sense, work harder to abate pollution and filter runoff.

For Tallahasseeans who like to hit park trails, these are great. There are miles of trails in this network; it’s not hard to get lost. After years of walking greenways and trails in Tallahassee parks (we have quite a few), I’m surprised it took me so long to find this one.

Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park

After lugging me around Lake Iamonia in a tandem kayak, taking my son Max out on a paddleboard must have been a breeze.

After lugging me around Lake Iamonia in a tandem kayak, taking my son Max out on a paddleboard must have been a breeze for Georgia.

When I think of this park, I think of flowers. And pollen. Years ago when I produced WFSU’s music show, outloud, we brought local zheng player Haiqiong Deng to the gardens to record a few pieces. Spring had just sprung, and after every piece we stopped to wipe a layer of yellow dust off of her instrument and our gear. The combination of music and setting made it one of my favorite episodes of the show, which ran for almost ten years.

The park has much more than these gardens, with miles of trails and Lake Hall, which I managed to not fall into while learning to stand up paddleboard (I do come close, as you can see). It’s a place where you can take your kayak, canoe, SUP, or sailboat and not worry about motorboats. Lake Hall is considered to have some of the best water quality in Leon County. Park manager Elizabeth Weidner told us that in recent years they have installed collection ponds adjacent to the roadways around the park to collect stormwater runoff.

I had a great time exploring these places, and gaining a larger perspective on how water moves through a watershed and beneath us in the aquifer.  We’ll be further expanding upon this theme while we continue to look for great places to spend a day (or more).  I don’t like to jinx myself by saying what we’ll be shooting in the coming weeks, as the weather can be uncooperative (we got the video above on our third try).  Let’s just say we’ve planned a hike in a place with a reputation for being difficult and are heading back to the Apalachicola basin for a seasonal treat.

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Kayaks parked at Piney Z. Lake in the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park.

Bike and Kayak EcoAdventure on Tallahassee’s Lake Lafayette

Video: Mountain biking, kayaking, and nature watching at the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park in Tallahassee, Florida.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Sunrise at Piney Z. LakeAs you can see in the video, a sunrise is always worth getting up for.  All the better if a sunrise that beautiful is a mere fifteen minutes from my house.  Moments before the sun peaked over the tree line to gaze at its reflection in Piney Z. Lake, we heard a ruckus of birds as they flew overhead.  We came to the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park for kayaking, mountain biking, and an airboat ride, but the reason you schedule a shoot at that time is for lighting and wildlife.  Florida Fish and Wildlife biologist Michael Hill told us that they’re getting the park onto the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.  My favorite critter of the day was the juvenile green heron you see at 0:32, but it was also fun to see anhinga, gators, and the occasional osprey.  The park also has gallinules, wood ducks (you can see a couple of wood duck boxes in the video), and over three hundred wood stork nests (located on Lower Lake Lafayette).

Tussocks on Lower Lake Lafayette

The Lower Lake Lafayette portion of the paddling trail is currently clogged with tussocks. When the water gets low, dead plant material accumulates and traps seeds. The seeds grow in these mats, which become floating islands when the water gets higher. The dead vegetation you see in this photo is a result of herbicides, the first step in clearing the trail.

My wife and I have been hiking the multi-use trails in the park pretty much since it opened a few short years ago.  We usually start in Tom Brown Park, make our way along Upper Lake Lafayette and then to Piney Z. Lake.  If we have the time, we head along the dam separating Piney Z. and Lower Lake Lafayette, and across the train tracks into the J.R. Alford Greenway (where a raised bridge is currently under construction to allow for safer passage over the rails).

Walking all that way, you get to wondering about the dams separating the lakes and the “fishing fingers” on Piney Z.  Those are remnants of the Piney Z. Plantation, which added the earthen dams and dykes in the 1940’s.  The fingers are an interesting feature, letting you walk towards the center of the lake and offering some nice views of the dykes that the City of Tallahassee turned into small islands when they made the park.  All of that damming has altered the hydrology of what was once a singular Lake Lafayette.  This is why the paddling trail on Lower Laffayette has been closed for the last year, as our recent drought lowered the lake and caused it to become choked with vegetation.  The trail will soon be cleared and will open by Thanksgiving 2013.  Thanks to Michael and his airboat (and to Liz Sparks for setting us up with him), we were able to get a unique look at the lake and its floating islands of vegetation, called tussocks.  The dams prevent the lake’s normal drainage cycles, and so the trails require some extra maintenance.  Lake Lafayette is one of Tallahassee’s four sinkhole lakes, along with Iamonia, Jackson, and Miccosukee.  All of them had historically emptied at different intervals, and all were dammed to prevent that draining for fear that it was harming the wildlife in them.  We now better understand that these lakes’ ecosystems evolved with these cycles, and the other lakes have had their dams removed.

Ardisia crenata

Ardisia crenata, an invasive plant found in the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park.

On land, the multi-use trails need maintenance as well, and there is one thing that any of us who use the park can help with.  Chuck Goodheart, who manages the park, is looking for help with invasive plant species, in particular, Ardisia crenata.  This plant threatens to overtake native plants within the park.  The city had spent thousands of dollars to try and eradicate it, only to have it return.  Now they’re turning to people who use the trail.  People have learned to carry bags when they walk their dogs; we can likewise bag and remove the plants and their berries when we see them in the park.  In fact, there are bags for dog waste near the Piney Z. parking area.  If people buy into it, it should be a cost effective approach.

I want to thank Chuck for riding his bike on camera after recently having surgery on his foot.  And I want to thank Georgia Ackerman for once again lending me a kayak.  Todd Engstrom and I both got to try out the kayaks we’re taking on RiverTrek 2013, which is- oh my! – two weeks away.  Todd, Georgia, and Liz are a great group to paddle with.  RiverTrek gets me thinking about the connection between the Apalachicola River and Bay, and the bay’s ever important estuarine ecosystems.  This dynamic is at play on Lower Lake Lafayette, which flows into the St. Marks River, which itself flows into the St. Marks Refuge with its vast marshes.  Upper Lafayette has a sinkhole that drains into the Floridan aquifer, the source of water for most of north Florida and parts of South Georgia.  The aquifer also feeds springs that feed rivers that ultimately feed the Gulf.  Nature has this “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” thing going on, especially when it comes to the way water moves.  That includes rain and everything it carries with it from the roadways and lawns in the developed areas around Lake Lafayette. (Watch as David Kimbro explains the natural- and unnatural- nitrogen cycle, and how oysters can help). In all the years I’ve been coming here, I had no idea about this, or the why the dams were there or what their effect on the lake is.  I’m glad I had this “closer to home” EcoAdventure to get to know a familiar place a little better.

For more information on the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park, visit their web site.
You can watch a video I produced on greenways and trails in Tallahassee by visiting the new and improved Dimensions web site.
Music in the video by pitx and airtone.

Kayaks parked at Piney Z. Lake in the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park.