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Protecting Westchase Ponds: How Can You Help?

If you’re a homeowner living on a pond, there’s a lot you can do to help protect your yard from erosion.

And if you don’t live on a pond, you can still take some simple steps to help keep neighborhood ponds clean and safe.

Westchase’s beautiful ponds aren’t actually natural lakes. They are engineered storm-water management facilities owned, operated and maintained by the Westchase Community Development District (CDD) – or by the Park Place CDD or Westwood Lakes HOA if you live outside Westchase.

Translation please?

Back when the community was developed, state and local governments mandated the construction of our storm-water pond systems to hold back and slow the run-off of rain.

There were some practical reasons.

If released at once, the wave of rainwater from our afternoon thunderstorms would otherwise flood developments downstream from us.

The system does more than prevent flooding, however. Working in conjunction with nearby wetlands and streams, Westchase’s interconnected pond system serves as an enormous, natural filter that protects the ecology of Tampa Bay. Each year neighborhood ponds – particularly their aquatic plants – filter tons of pollutants. They remove and break down yard fertilizers and pesticides as well as petroleum and other pollutants from our community’s roads.

It’s a relatively new approach to growing problems with water quality and flooding. Most communities developed in Florida prior to the 1980s don’t have retention ponds. As the result of unbridled development, the state lost half of its wetlands before a realization took root that the method of development was contributing to flooding and poor water quality in Tampa Bay and nearby beaches.

In the 1980s new regulations took hold, requiring the construction of retention ponds to store water in order to help recharge Florida’s aquifer, a source of drinking water, and clean it before it flows into the bay.

The visible ponds, however, are just part of the community’s complex storm-water system. The ponds are interconnected by a web of buried pipes. These pipes lead to community roads, other ponds and weirs, and even wetlands. Through maintenance easements over all the land under which the pipes run, your CDD (or in the case of Westwood Lakes residents, your HOA) ensures the system works correctly.

Did you know your neighborhood’s street sewers drain directly into your community’s ponds?

Because the ponds hold pollutants from yards and roads, activities such as boating, swimming and fishing are not permitted in them; these rules also protect homeowners’ privacy. (Certainly, no one should ever consume fish caught in the retention ponds.)

Homeowners, however, should take care not to add unnecessary pollutants. Some homeowners allow automobile chemicals, cleaning agents and even house paint to flow into street drains; others toss pet waste directly into the street sewers rather than carrying it home to a garbage can. Doing so ultimately insures it all washes into ponds behind their neighbors’ homes.

Further, residents with children and pets should exercise caution along pond banks, which can be steep. The ponds also hold wildlife such as snapping turtles, some venomous snakes and alligators, which can endanger pets and children.

When constructed, retention ponds have varying depths. Most are generally only three to five feet at their deepest points, although some go to depths of 12 feet. Other larger lakes, like the one beside Westchase Elementary, are former borrow where soil was excavated for construction; these often run far deeper.

Many of the ponds have much shallower areas closer to shore known as littoral shelves. These are areas purposefully constructed for the cultivation of aquatic plants like bulrush.

Why the need for the plants?

“They serve a dual purpose,” said Stantec’s Tonja Stewart, an engineer who works for both the Westchase and Park Place Community Development Districts (CDDs). “One would be to plant them on the designed littoral shelves for water quality improvement and the other is to pond slope stabilization.”

That’s where the ponds and their proper function collide with some homeowners’ expectation of an unblemished water view.

Some homeowners insist the pond behind their home should have the plant-free surface like that of a swimming pool or bay.

That expectation, said Stewart, runs headlong into ponds’ proper roles and management.

Retention ponds – as well as the quantity and type of aquatic plants they contain – are also regulated and monitored by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) until they are well established. While the CDDs have greater leeway in their management of the ponds than they do wetland or wetland mitigation areas, the districts may not go in and tear out all aquatic plants from littoral shelves to preserve water views by homeowners. Nor can homeowners. Doing so would trigger a SWFWMD demand to replant them.

This has actually happened to the Westchase CDD in the past when an overly aggressive pond cleanout of invasive non-native plants met SWFWMD’s disapproval. The district was forced to replant the pond at great expense.

Previously the Westchase CDD had to intervene to stop the damage a Glenfield resident was doing to the plants along the pond bank behind her home.

“I think we need to explain to the board, the residents the importance of the plants so that they clearly understand how critical they are to the proper function of these ponds,” said Stewart. “And if they insist on looking at it from aesthetically viewpoint exclusively, they’ve been put on notice.”

Stewart says she’s seen the demand for clear pond surfaces even affect political races for the CDD boards she serves.

“I’ve seen people get on the board of supervisors specifically to eradicate the plants,” she said. “There are some people who hate them that much. What I can’t figure out is why they don’t mind the wetlands. I don’t know why it gives people so much heartburn to see plants in the pond.”

As for the success of the anti-pond plant political campaigns?

“It hasn’t worked. Typically the other supervisors continue to support best practices.”

In order to maintain the system, the CDD owns Westchase’s ponds and many of their pond banks. (While some homeowners own the pond banks in some neighborhoods, the CDD still has maintenance easements along them.) The district regularly inspects the community’s ponds to assess both water quality and the stability and condition of its pond banks.

How expensive does it run?

In recent years, the Westchase CDD has spent a great deal of money managing ponds. In addition to the district’s current $100,000 annual contract with A&B Aquatics for typical pond maintenance, the Westchase CDD has spent $65,240 on pond cleanouts and plantings since last 2010 and over $147,000 on pond bank erosion repairs. The total comes out to over $60 per home. Those numbers don’t include a $21,000 contract just signed for another pond bank repair project in a Westchase pond.

Unfortunately, some homeowners undermine the district’s work and contribute to preventable pond bank erosion.

In recent months, a homeowner in The Vineyards sprayed and killed about 60 Spartina plants installed just last year by the Westchase CDD to help filter the water and protect the pond bank behind his home from eroding. According to Westchase Field Manager Doug Mays, the individual killed nearly 20 yards of the pond bank, well beyond the area of his backyard and even into a nearby conservation area. “I think he thought it was weeds,” Mays said.

Mays has repeatedly stopped at the resident’s home to discuss the matter, twice leaving business cards asking him to call Mays. The resident has not responded.

“Our next step may be to send him a bill to get his attention,” Mays said.

Mays added that homeowners should never take maintenance of the pond bank upon themselves. They should contact their CDD or, if they live in Westwood Lakes, their HOA office first.

Fortunately, it’s not a widespread problem. “Some homeowners’ biggest concern is snakes that can hide inside of vegetation,” said Mays. “We just need to make sure we keep the pond banks clean of torpedo grass and other invasives. Thing can’t hide as well in the plants,” he said.

Retention pond banks are highly susceptible to erosion due to the ponds’ waves, the fluctuation of water levels, a lack of vegetation on or near the pond banks, and yard drainage into the ponds.

Plants and tall grass play key roles here.

“I’d encourage residents to understand the importance of the plant material for the protection of their shorelines and the longevity of their ponds,” Mays advised.

According to Stewart and other experts, homeowners need to take important steps to maintain the integrity of the pond banks behind their homes. Doing so will protect their yards from slowly collapsing into the water.

First, drainage from home roofs as well as from pools and air conditioners can erode pond berms and slopes. Pool water, containing chemicals, can also harm pond water quality. If runoff water from your yard, home or pool follows the same discharge path into the pond behind your home, it ultimately will erode the pond bank and cause you to lose portions of your yard. Westchase residents who notice run-off or drainage gullies cutting into pond banks, please contact the CDD office at 920-4268 to discuss smart ways to redirect yard and home drainage.

Second, some homeowners are in the habit of spraying herbicides and weed killers along pond banks to discourage aquatic plants. Others have lawn companies that cut the turf along the water too short. “It is important to keep the grasser higher there in order to develop a deeper grass root into the ground for greater slope protection,” said Stewart.

The most harmful homeowners, however, actually remove aquatic plants to promote a clear view of the water’s surface. Yet in addition to filtering pollutants, the roots of aquatic plants stabilize pond banks, preventing erosion and preserving homeowners’ properties. When removed, they increase the likelihood the homeowner’s yard will slowly collapse into the pond.

What are the best practices?

First, redirect yard drainage that is creating gullies and erosion on your pond bank.

Second, vegetation, grass and aquatic plants must be allowed to establish themselves and grow both along pond banks and within the water. They should never be removed or treated. The district hires a professional aquatics company that knows which helpful plants should stay and which invasive species should be removed. This job should be left to them.

Third, pond bank grass should never be cut excessively by homeowners or their landscape companies. It should be kept at least six inches tall.

The Westchase district recently adopted a policy calling for greater height for grass along the pond banks to slow run-off and minimize erosion. Further, pond banks should be lushly green and never brown.

Fourth, any aquatic plants that the CDD installs along the pond slopes must also be protected from herbicides. They should never be trimmed and never removed. Those who remove them could be billed by the district for their replacement.

Taking these precautions will help stabilize the pond slope behind your home.

At recent meetings Westchase CDD supervisors have discussed the creation of a maintenance log for homes abutting pond banks. If created, it would record the level of cooperation of adjacent homeowners. Those who fail to observe these best practices may be left to make erosion repairs themselves. It isn’t a cheap undertaking. The district recently voted to spend $35,000 to repair pond banks behind only five homes.

“The methods of erosion repair are extremely expensive and being proactive in the manner we’ve discussed will prevent communities from having to incur those higher repair costs,” said Stewart.

The beauty of Westchase and its surrounding Northwest communities is enhanced by their beautiful yards, ponds and wetlands; their interconnected storm-water systems also protect Tampa Bay. With homeowners’ assistance, our community pond banks and Tampa Bay’s beautiful estuary can be protected and maintained for years to come.

You can minimize erosion, improve pond water quality and keep your CDD maintenance assessments low by observing the following best practices.

Do:

• Enjoy and respect the beautiful wildlife that is attracted to Westchase ponds.
• Instruct your lawn maintenance company not to cut grass within a five-foot buffer around the ponds; in Westchase this area is maintained by the Westchase CDD
• Tell your lawn fertilizer and pest control companies not to spread chemicals within ten feet of ponds.
• If you spot pond bank areas that are browning out, keep them green and lush by making sure yard irrigation reaches them (but not the pond water).
• Pick up trash and debris from your yard before it blows into ponds.
• Always respect the buffer of taller grass around ponds, which slows run-off and minimizes erosion.
• Always redirect water runoff from rain gutters, AC units and pools away from ponds to help prevent pond bank erosion.
• Notify the Westchase CDD, the Park Place CDD or Westwood Lakes HOA of any erosion gullies or pond bank erosion you see.
• Familiarize yourself with best pond practices by reading the Waterways Management page at http://www.westchasecdd.com
. • Visit the website of the Southwest Water Management District (SWFWMD) at http://www.swfwmd.state.fl.us to better understand its role in creating Westchase pond rules.
• For questions about the ponds, pond banks or pond maintenance, always contact the Westchase CDD first at 920-4268 or email cdd@westchasecdd.com if you live in Westchase.

Don’t:

• Never pull out, remove or spray aquatic plants growing on the pond banks or in the water. If you remove plants, the CDD will charge you for their replacement costs.
• Never spray herbicide or kill grass or plants on the pond banks.
• Never alter the structure of the pond bank in any way.
• Never dump aquarium fish or plants into ponds. This practice has led to the spread of hydrilla, an invasive, fast-growing plant that has greatly damaged Florida pond life.
• Never let cut grass from mowers fly into ponds. When decaying, it pulls oxygen from the water, harming fish. Also avoid blowing cut grass into roads, where it will flow into ponds during rainstorms.
• Never swim, fish or boat in ponds.
• Never dispose of pet waste in street sewers; it floats into ponds after heavy rains.
• Never dump trash, paint, fertilizer, pesticides or other chemicals into street drains, which are connected directly to nearby ponds.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher; Cover photo by James Broome Photography

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