Winter Haven, Town Of Dry Canals

Once upon a time Winter Haven, Florida was a boater’s dream with many lakes connected by canals that made for long days on the water going from here to there. Heck Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields both had a place side by side separated by a canal.

That was before the latest drought.

Today those canals are dried up or drying up. Chrysa Emmerich and her husband, “Wild Bill” Stowell’s Aloha Rainbow Marina on Lake Eloise has not had any traffic since April 2007.

Low water. It makes that fun in the sun just about impossible for boaters who can’t go from one lake to another because of dry canals.

“The only person who has come in a year was a kayaker,” Emmerich said. “We were so excited. We cheered her on.”

Emmerich survives only on those who make it to the marina on land to buy their live bait, tackle, gas and food stuffs.

Roger Griffiths, executive director of the Lake Region Lakes Management District says that its nearly impassible to navigate the 60 lakes and 18 canals in the Winter Haven area.

“From our standpoint, we are telling people they (canals) are not navigable, but that doesn’t mean boaters are not making it through,” Griffiths said. “It’s almost something each boater needs to check out from himself.”

The canals vary in water depth from one end to the next. The agency doesn’t have the manpower or money to keep records of the true water depths although the district does keep daily measurements of the average lake surface level.

During the summer when boating is a favorite pastime the weather, hot and dry, makes for low lake levels.

The lakes have been lower in the past. There were record lows in 2001. Today they aren’t as low but they are lower than just a year ago.

The measurements on Friday showed lake levels measured 128.48 feet. At this time a year ago, the lakes stood at 129 feet. That is three feet below the levels that is considered desirable.

The canals are a different story. They are getting bone bone. Hardest hit are the canals between lakes Cannon and Mirror and lakes Conine and Smart. Those canals can’t support boat traffic of any kind.

Local businesses are feeling the pinch of the dry canals. Mark Mercier is in the construction stage of adding a dock, convenience store and gas station to his Marine Storage Center on Lake May. When the grand opening happens in August he’ll need 125 boats stopping by a day.

“We’ll need to find the money somewhere to take care of this,” Mark Mercier said. “It’s a big economic boost to all of Polk County.”

You know it’s bad when the locals are hoping for a tropic storm to pour the rain down on them.

“I hate to say it but we need to have a tropical storm to sit on top of us and rain for a couple of days,” said Jeff Windisman, who owns a bass boat.

Boaters who run aground face huge bills to get their watercraft working again. The low water levels can cause the motors to suck up mud and plug the water pumps.

The Lakes Management District, also known as the Canal Commission, is in the process of installing bigger seawall sheets so that canals can be dug deeper and hold more water. That costs money though and with a annual budget of $1 million and only $50,000 allotted to seawalls it will take time. Plus there’s the dirt. Lots of dirt needs to be dug up and there is no where to put it. Dumping it in the lakes is out, that is illegal. There are no devices like a barge that could carry it out to do that anyway.

“The canals are as deep as we can dig them without expecting a failure at the bottom of the seawalls,” Griffiths said.

Officials in Winter Haven know that improving the canal problem is paramount to its tourism survival. The town is known as “Chain of Lakes City.”

“Our stated goal is accessibility to all lakes within five years and a partnership with other agencies such as the Canal Commission is a viable one,” said Potter, who is the city’s liaison to the Canal Commission.

This is a town that is in need of Mother Nature making a pit stop and pouring rain down on it.

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