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By: Beachfoxx , 4:02 PM GMT on September 08, 2013
The ‘jewels of 30A’ (VIDEO, GALLERY)
By TOM McLAUGHLIN / Daily News
Published: Saturday, September 7, 2013 at 14:56 PM.
They’re beautiful, mysterious, incredibly unique and oh so misunderstood.
South Walton County’s 15 coastal dune lakes also are listed as “globally rare and imperiled” in the Florida Natural Areas Inventory.
Development in one of Florida’s fastest growing areas has done noticeable damage to some of the lakes over the years and continues to threaten the well-being of most of them.
See more photos of Western Lake. >>
Take a video tour of Western Lake. >>
But dedicated people and organizations are fighting not only to save and restore South Walton’s “Dune Lake Country” but to alert residents and visitors alike to what lakes advocate Marsha Anderson calls “the jewels of 30A.”
Australia, New Zealand and Oregon also lay claim coastal dune lakes, but no place has the concentration South Walton boasts and nowhere do the lakes so liberally exchange salt water and fresh water.
“There’s no other place where these lakes outfall to a major body of water like the Gulf of Mexico,” said Sarah Schindele, a grant coordinator for the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance who has put much time and effort into studying and fighting for the lakes.
Change is constant
Schindele says that peat beneath the crystal white sand the Emerald Coast is famous for has, over the centuries, acted as a basin that keeps fresh water entering the dune lakes from evaporating.
Fresh water fills the lakes in any number of ways. Some are spring-fed, tributaries empty into others and still others fill with ground water or runoff.
“Each lake is an entity unto itself,” Schindele said.
The dune lake water is tea colored because of tannin, a naturally occurring and perfectly harmless stain that comes from leaves and pine needles decomposing.
It is at the outfalls that fresh water meets salt water and the lakes encounter The Gulf.
Most commonly, the outfalls open when lake water builds up and overflows or pushes aside the sand preventing it from flowing downhill. Other times, tropical storms push the Gulf inland.
“A dune lake’s defining characteristic is that it is dynamic,” said Schindele.
A group of University of Florida students, working with a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, coined the phrase “Dune Lake Country” to describe a 30-mile stretch of coastal South Walton where the lakes are found.
“Each coastal dune lake is individually characteristic with outfall openings varying in length, frequency and duration,” the group reported. “As a result, some lakes can be completely freshwater, some brackish and/or salty with varying degrees between stages.”
The lakes’ dynamic nature has in some cases led to their being misunderstood, said Anderson, chairman of the county’s Coastal Dune Lakes Advisory Board.
Visitors have been known to vacation near a dune lake only to find that the water level had dropped precipitously or the nature of the water had changed, she said.
This year, after heavy rains opened outfalls at several spots, complaints were made of “nasty” brown water flowing across local beaches to the gulf.
“People who come here and stay a week expect the lake to be the same way it was last year. They don’t do that. That’s part of the way they function, and the way they are is part of their attraction,” Anderson said.
“We need to change the way we treat the lake rather than try to change the lake,” Schindele added.
In August, Walton County commissioners discussed doing away with Anderson’s board, but were swayed by several passionate members to work with the Coastal Dune Lakes Advisory Board for the lakes’ benefit.
“We have a lot of citizen volunteers anxious to do something,” Anderson said. “We hope the county commissioners see the county is behind us. We hope they see there is something out there for us. If we have the backing of the county we can play an important role.”
A short-term goal for the board is “helping develop educational materials for tourists and locals,” Anderson said. In the long term, getting a state Department of Environmental Protection “designation” for the coastal dune lakes could help in securing grants.
‘A reason for good behavior’
The three westernmost lakes — Fuller, Morris and Campbell — are in Topsail Hill Preserve State Park and are protected from development.
Development along State Road 30 A has negatively impacted most of the rest of the lakes. Powell Lake, the easternmost of the 15 lakes is mostly in Bay County.
Some lakes like Western Lake, the largest one, have proven popular with kayakers, paddle boarders and other recreation seekers. Because of careful planning in communities such as WaterColor, the human impact has been less damaging than it could have been, Schindele said.
“For the most part our lakes, as far as we can see, are healthy. It’s not necessarily a situation where we’ve ruined everything,” she said. “But a healthy lake is something to care for and not to take for granted. It’s not an excuse for bad behavior; it’s a reason for good behavior.”
Oyster Lake in Dune Allen Beach has been most affected by development, Schindele said.
But since about 2007 much work has been done to remove invasive plants and even turn roads around the lake into pedestrian-friendly bridges that don’t impede the natural ebb and flow of water.
At present, the lake’s outfall has been blocked by construction of a driveway, and there’s the threat of construction just feet from where the dune lake’s outfall flows to the Gulf. But Schindele said it’s hoped by fall the outfall will be opened again.
The lakes most recently came under discussion when two undersized culverts running beneath County Road 30A collapsed during heavy rains and washed out the road.
The often beaver-dammed culverts for years have done a poor job of connecting the northern part of Big Redfish Lake to its south end and outfall.
The washout presented dune lake advocates with an opportunity to approach the county about building a bridge where the road had been and reuniting the two portions of the lake.
The freer movement of water will bring changes to the lake and cause some “surprises,” Anderson and Schindele said, but it will also restore to some extent the natural order of things.
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