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  • Shannon Carnevale

Celebrating National Lakes Appreciation Month: The Value of Aquatic Plants

July is National Lakes Appreciation Month, and as a UF/IFAS Extension agent, I’m taking this opportunity to shed light on an aspect of our local lakes that’s often overlooked but is incredibly important: the value of aquatic plants. 


Many of us might view these plants as pesky water weeds, but if we dive deeper, we’ll discover that they play a critical role in maintaining the health of our lakes and the wildlife that inhabits them.


Watershed kayak tour led by Polk County Extension Agent Shannon McGee in Winter Haven on Wednesday, August 7th, 2013.

Let’s start by debunking some misconceptions. Lakefront vegetation often gets a bad rap for being messy, dangerous, or unsightly. However, with thoughtful planning and treating our shorelines as extensions of our landscape plans, lakefront vegetation can be transformed into a picturesque vista that also serves important functional roles for both our families and the environment.


Some of the major benefits of aquatic plants is their contribution to clearer water, improved fish habitat, and their role in deterring problematic algae blooms. A diverse and abundant aquatic plant community is also likely to attract migratory birds and other wildlife, making our lakes teeming ecosystems and not just scenic backdrops.


WILDLIFE HABITAT


Aquatic plants are essentially wildlife condos. They supply shelter, food, and space – the three key components of wildlife habitat. 


Emergent (plants rooted to the lake bottom which emerge out of the water’s surface) and submerged plants (plants that are rooted to the lake bottom and live underwater) provide food for many of our migratory birds and waterfowl. For example, plants like duck potato and eelgrass (Vallisneria americana) serve as nutritious food sources for local waterfowl. Additionally, the seeds of aquatic grasses and sedges are important food sources for these birds.


Beyond serving as a cafeteria for waterfowl, aquatic plants also act as nurseries for young sport fish and valuable aquatic species, like the Florida blue crawfish. Species like the red-wing blackbird, moorhen, and pied-billed grebe find nesting habitats among these plants. 


EROSION CONTROL 


On the practical side, aquatic plants like pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) and duck potato are excellent at controlling shoreline erosion. They anchor the soil, protecting your property from wave action. 


Preventing erosion is not only beneficial to maintaining your property line but it also helps you avoid lengthy and challenging processes to secure permits from Florida’s DEP to add soil back to your eroded land.


Watershed kayak tour led by Polk County Extension Agent Shannon McGee in Winter Haven on Wednesday, August 7th, 2013.

WATER QUALITY AND CLARITY


The connection between aquatic plants and water quality might be complex, but in general terms, a robust and diverse aquatic plant community will safeguard and enhance water quality and clarity over time. Some plants, like eelgrass, have even been correlated with improved water clarity. 


When a lake has a healthy population of submerged aquatic plants, it is more likely to have cleaner, clearer water. Having more native plants in our lakes is a win-win situation for both people who enjoy the lakes and the wildlife that depend on them.


ALGAE BLOOMS


Algae blooms are a natural phenomenon in Florida, especially during summer. 


However, due to changes in land use from rural to more urban and agricultural practices, we have added excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus to our lakes. This can lead to larger and more frequent algae blooms which can be harmful to our ecosystems and society. 


The true remedy lies in reducing excess nutrients through restoration of our lake ecosystems. This means restoring wetlands, encouraging the growth of native plants, and prioritizing lakefront management that helps the ecosystem over personal desires. Unfortunately, it also takes time. 


Most algae blooms are merely an annoyance, but sometimes when conditions are right, they become “harmful algae blooms” which are also referred to as HAB’s. These algae blooms look vibrant in color, often bright green and bright blue, and may smell like rotting plants. They tend to be streaky on top of the water, like floating paint. If you think you may have a “harmful algae bloom,” report it to Florida’s Department of Health at floridadep.gov/AlgalBloom.


Watershed kayak tour led by Polk County Extension Agent Shannon McGee in Winter Haven on Wednesday, August 7th, 2013.

“BUT, I DON’T LIVE ON A LAKE?”


Even if you don’t reside by the lakeside, there are several ways to join in National Lakes Appreciation Month:


Arrange a “Lakes Appreciation Night” at a local eatery, a fun community event that can also raise funds for a local lake association like Lakes Education/Action Drive (www.lakeseducation.com

Embrace the Florida summer with lake activities like boating, swimming, or fishing to build a deeper appreciation for our local lakes.


Consider organizing a shoreline cleanup - it not only beautifies but also improves wildlife habitats.

If your home is near a water body and your home is on septic, think about having your septic system pumped to prevent potential water contamination.


If you’re a nature enthusiast, go birding or photograph a lake or pond. If you’re artistic, draw or paint a lake scene and share your creation with us on social media. I’m on Twitter and Instagram at @PolkNR and would be thrilled to see your works!


These small acts can make an enormous difference in preserving and appreciating our local lakes, today and every day.  


This National Lakes Appreciation Month let’s take a moment to appreciate the intricate and invaluable role aquatic plants play in our lakes. They are more than just “weeds” - they are the lifelines of our lake ecosystems. In our roles as stewards of these natural resources, we can start by promoting the value of aquatic plants and by practicing responsible lakefront management.


Together, we can make a difference, not only in appreciation of our lakes but in the action to preserve and protect them. If you live on a lake and want to get involved in water quality sampling, email me at scarnevale@ufl.edu to inquire about becoming a Florida Lakewatch Volunteer (https://lakewatch.ifas.ufl.edu/).  


Photography by Tyler Jones


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