By Patrick McCallister
For Hometown News
LAKE HELEN -- The city is watching its aquatic namesake disappear, and some suspect there are hidden causes.
"I can show you docks built in four feet of water and they're 10 feet from the water now," Mayor Buddy Snowden said in a telephone interview. "I've lived here 65 years. I've swam that lake one end to the other. I know folks that have lived here 90 years. No one has ever seen the lake that low."
Also, the mayor said an adjoining lake, Harlan, has dried completely in recent years, leaving a large, dry pit. The mayor said Lake Harlan received water from Lake Helen, but that's not happened in several years.
At its last regular meeting, Thursday, Jan. 10, representatives from the St. Johns River Water Management District told the City Commission Occam's razor favors the simplest reason for the shrinking lake. There's less rain.
"The main issue really is the lack of rainfall," Nancy Christman, intergovernmental coordinator, said at the meeting, "It's the long term drought we've been in for several years."
The mayor's not buying that less rainfall is the only thing denying water to Lake Helen.
"I also believe that there has been some event that has occurred that has disrupted the flow of water runoff that impacts water flowing into the lake," he said. "We've had a drought season every seven to 10 years. We've had the same kind of history of what's going on today. But the levels in the lake have never changed that drastically."
Tom Carey, pollution control manager for Volusia County, said it's difficult to understand how seemingly small rainfall variations make big differences. He said he's measured a 25-inch rainfall shortage over the last four years.
"Those four years add up to 25.06 inches of rain we'd normally expect and we did not get," he said in a telephone interview. "That equals half a year of rainfall we're down over four years. That's what's causing the shortage you're seeing at Lake Helen and other lakes."
To illustrate the effect of a 25-inch rainfall shortage, Mr. Carey calculated that Volusia's 1,200 square miles have gotten about 500 billion gallons less rainwater than average over those four years.
Last year, Mr. Carey said, Volusia got 7.93 inches less rain than its average. The average is about 55 inches. In 2011, the county was down by 8.12 inches. Year before that, 7.42. In 2009, the county came close to its usual rainfall and was short by only 1.59 inches.
Carey gets his rainfall averages from two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitoring stations in DeLand and Daytona Beach. The county has 42 groundwater wells to monitor what's happening under the grass and trees.
"Right now, we have 12 groundwater wells that are below what we call baseline," he said.
Those low wells are spread through the county.
The water-management district reports that southwest Volusia -- Deltona and Debary northward to DeLand -- was more than 10 inches below average on rainfall in 2012. The east side, according to the district's reports, was closer to average.
Ms. Christman said other cities in the water-management district's 18-county area have also expressed suspicions that natural or manmade geological changes are drying their lakes.
"We're getting that question from a lot of areas in our water-management district," she said in a phone interview. "It has become a problem in many areas. There can be other causes, but that's the main one right now. We've had a lack of rain going on for several years."
Mayor Snowden remains stalwart that the drying Lake Helen is a victim of development and the water levels are part of that. He's certain, too, that a spring fed Lake Helen with clear water, but it's disappeared. He said decades ago the lake was a countywide draw for families going boating, swimming and picnicking. Today the water is too brackish and unappealing.
"I think it's a combination of natural and manmade events that have eroded the condition of the lake," he said.
The mayor also is certain of one other thing -- he knows when the transformation began. The day Interstate 4 came to town in the '60s.
"The pristine lake it was 60 years ago, it's certainly gone down," Mayor Snowden said.