Making the lakes 'better'? Canal Commission director learned 'there's a lot more to it'

·10 min read
Roger Griffiths, executive director of the Lake Region Lakes Management District.
Roger Griffiths, executive director of the Lake Region Lakes Management District.

Colloquially known as the “canal commission,” the Lake Region Lakes Management District oversees the health and welfare of about 60 lakes in the greater Winter Haven area, including slightly more than a third that are connected by canals.

Winter Haven without its lakes would be like Disney without Mickey, so important are its lakes – particularly the Chain of Lakes – to the city’s identity, aesthetics and recreational opportunities. Take away the lakes and you have a town hardly distinguishable from dozens of others throughout the state. But with them you have Cypress Gardens (having morphed into Legoland), Brown’s Seaplane Base – possibly the most widely used floatplane training facility in the world – and frequent bass fishing tournaments that attract participants from far and near. But mostly you have the everyday pleasures Polk’s citizens take in its beautiful waterways for fishing, skiing, boating and even, occasionally, swimming.

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Though most of the lakes began life as sinkholes 50,000 or so years ago, the canals that connect them date only to 1915 when several visionary citizens formed the Twenty Lakes Boat Course Club and began laboriously dredging channels ranging from just a few feet long to hundreds of yards in length. In 1919, the Florida legislature created a taxing district, currently encompassing about 49 square miles, to govern and finance the enterprise. Today, three elected commissioners direct a $1 million budget – about half the amount they have the authority to raise in taxes. Presiding over the organization and its dozen employees is its executive director, Roger Griffiths, 77, who holds a master’s degree in agriculture from the University of Florida and has run the operation for well more than half his adult life.

Griffiths’ familiarity with the lakes began in childhood. His boyhood home was a stone’s throw from Lake Silver, and for the past several decades he has lived on Lake Eloise. When he was a kid, he and a friend would sometimes crawl through the large concrete pipes that connect some of the lakes that aren’t part of the chain, pipes that serve as conduits for excess water before lakes overflow onto streets. Griffiths says they slithered between Silver and Martha and between Elbert and Otis, half expecting to encounter an alligator. You might say he prepared for his job from below-the-ground up.

Q. Some say the canals were originally created to move citrus harvests by barge when local roads were but primitive dirt pathways. Any evidence for that assertion?

A. I have heard people say that, but I’ve never seen anything in writing to document it, nor have I ever seen a dock capable of holding large crates of fruit. It makes a nice story, and if you look at the people who were first on the board, they were certainly involved in citrus. Whether that happened to have anything to do with it, or it was just the folks who happened to have money who sat on the board, I don’t know.

Q. Maintaining the canals is still central to your work, but what else does the district do? What’s your broader mission?

A. We start with the idea of public access, and that can be done either through the canal system or from construction of boat ramps. In some cases, we buy the property for ramps. But where possible, we go to the municipality and ask them to allow us to use land they own adjacent to the lakes. The other issues have to do with water quality and water quantity. On water quality, we have rule-making capabilities but we have no enforcement capabilities, so we make ourselves knowledgeable about which entities do have rules, like DEP and Swiftmud (Southwest Florida Water Management District) or the city, and we try to let people know what the regulations are. On water quantity issues, we own and operate some water control structures and we operate others.

Q. When you and I were growing up, there were the same number of lakes as now but far fewer places to launch a boat. How has that changed over the years?

When I was hired, I looked at the charter, which says to provide public access. So for a period of time, we put in another facility every year. I learned a lot about building boat ramps. I learned about how people liked to back in, what they liked or disliked about the ramps already in place. We try to construct so that when you back the wheels of your car to the edge of the water your boat should be floating. And when you take it out you shouldn’t have to power load it onto the trailer, as that creates a lot of problems washing out the facility. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but like every job there’s a little more to it than just pouring some concrete and hoping it works.

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Q. Considering the evaporation factor, what is the annual rainfall necessary to keep the canals at optimal level?

A. We would be very happy with 50 to 55 inches of rainfall a year. For a period of 15 years or better, we were considerably less than that. The lakes went down, some of the canals went dry. After a few years of that, the commission decided to deepen the canals. If you make them deeper by taking away dirt from bottom, the seawall sheets that are not very far in the ground kick out. So we wound up having to take out perfectly good seawall in order to put in longer sheets and then dig out dirt. It’s not that easy a job. The cost is close to $200 per linear foot for material. You have to dispose of a great deal of wet dirt – and you’re talking about thousands of cubic yards – and the cost of equipment and manpower is another $100 to $200 per foot, depending on how much dirt has to be moved. But we did that without raising taxes because we found efficient ways. And now most of the canals will be navigable even when water is low.

When I first came here, some simple seawall work was done in-house but a lot of what was done was contract work. I’ve always felt that in government, if you do it on a regular basis, you ought to be able to do it yourself and save one heckava lot of money.

Q. What can be done to improve the quality of the lakes?

A. I considered part of my job to make the lakes “better” so shortly after coming I met with people at the University of Florida and they said, “Roger, what’s your goal?” And I said, “Well, I’d like to make the lakes better.” And they laughed and said, “Better for who? Better for skiers? Better for fishermen? Better for fish? Better for what kind of fish? Better for catfish and gar or better for sport fish?” So I began to realize I’m a naïve novice here, thinking that you could just make things “better.”

For the most part, when you look at a “clean” lake like Little Lake Winterset, it has to do with soils and the fact that they are more nutrient-poor in their sands as opposed to some of these other lakes that are naturally eutrophic. Before the sinkholes came and these lakes sunk, there was probably a different type of soil. This has been exacerbated by the fact that we’ve discharged detritus into lakes for years. When you and I were youngsters, they used to dump pretty much raw sewage into Lake May and what they dumped into Lulu wasn’t much better. As nasty as that lake was when we were kids, there were trout lines in that lake like crazy.

The lakes have become “better” by most people’s standards – i.e., less nutrient-rich – because we are doing some things better. Sewage is not being discharged into lakes, for example. There has been steady improvement for many lakes.

The canal between Lake Cannon and Lake Howard.
The canal between Lake Cannon and Lake Howard.

Q. Occasionally I hear folks express the belief that you as executive director can arbitrarily raise and lower the lake levels and they tend to blame you, rather than rainfall, when their props hit canal bottoms. How does the process actually work?

A. We base our control structures on Swiftmud’s “adopted levels” for the lakes. When I came here, there was really no rhyme or reason. I asked some of the guys here and it sort of depended on which one of their friends had advised them there was a problem. The levels that have been adopted by Swiftmud took into account where people’s houses were, where their docks were, road elevations. These are not decisions Roger makes based on Roger’s whims. These are decisions based on the adopted levels of the water management district, the rules Swiftmud made.

If I decided to do it different than that, I should have a very good reason. I can always let it out. I can’t bring it back after it’s gone. The last couple years have been pretty good. Swiftmud’s maximum desirable level for the chain is 131.5 feet above sea level. They are close to that today.

Q. Speaking of Swiftmud, prior to this interview, you sent me a statement concerning a project between Wahneta and Eloise to restore part of the natural drainage system that was destroyed some years ago, and indicated that Swiftmud was the main obstacle to its fruition. Elaborate.

A. The permitting process of almost everything today is so onerous that we literally love projects to death. It was going to cost around $400,000 for the design work to get Swiftmud’s permit. There is absolutely no reason for that. The property in question is an agricultural piece, which qualifies for an exemption. Swiftmud has fought me every single step of the way. Every time I’ve had a preapplication hearing with them they come up with a different reason why we do not qualify – never once offering to help. We’ve had grants from the state, the county and FEMA to put this thing together – and we’re very likely to lose them because it’s taking so long to get the money spent.

Q. I would suggest that part of the issue is that commissioners who run your outfit must answer to voters whereas Swiftmud has no elected officials with direct oversight responsibility, which makes them a bit of a kingdom unto themselves.

A. They are a rather large kingdom unto themselves. It’s not that I think there shouldn’t be rules or regulations – I don’t feel that way at all. That’s one of the nice things about having three locally elected officials. If things aren’t working well, very quickly people would be getting booted out and new folks would start doing things differently.

Thomas R. Oldt
Thomas R. Oldt

Q. Looking back on your years with this organization, what mistakes have you made? What do you wish you had done differently?

A. There are things that we could have done faster, but that would have meant raising taxes. We’re not fire, we’re not police, we’re not water or sewer – we’re really a recreational district. And there’s a lot of people who are paying us taxes who don’t live on a lake, who don’t own a boat. There’s still some benefit to everyone by having lakes that aren’t in horrible shape, but I’ve never felt there was a movement with people saying, “Double my taxes so you can hire more people so you can do things faster.”

Thomas R. Oldt can be reached at tomoldt@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Lake Region Lakes Management District director on canals