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Protecting Florida's Rare Coastal Dune Lakes

Tucked into a slice of the western Florida Panhandle is one of the rarest ecosystems in the world. The Coastal Dune Lakes are where fresh water lakes occasionally mix with the salty surf of the Gulf of Mexico.  April 2 , WUSF TV will air the premiere of a documentary of this unique ecosystem, Coastal Dune Lakes: Jewels of Florida’s Emerald Coast.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Early morning mist on Western Lake

Jacquee Markel swings open a wooden gate in her backyard that leads to another world. She lives on Oyster Lake, one of the Panhandle's Coastal Dune Lakes.

"One day we came out, and we were sitting over there, and it's the only time I've seen this, all around us, the water became alive," she said. "And fish started jumping. I think they were mullet, by the nature of the way they were jumping and the size. And it was fascinating - we were sitting around there around dusk, and these fish started jumping. It was amazing."

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Jacquee Markel on her dock on Oyster Lake

Across the lake, a huge four-story home is being built next to the outfall. That's where - when it rains a lot - these lakes plow through the sand dunes and connect to the Gulf of Mexico. Basically, they change from fresh water to salt water, and back again.

The Coastal Dune Lakes are one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. They're found only in  few places, like coastal Oregon, Madagascar and Australia.

They're the subject of a new documentary, Coastal Dune Lakes: Jewels of Florida’s Emerald Coast. It's produced by Elam Stoltzfus, who filmed the documentary of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition's first trip, back in 2012.

Clip from the video:  In the state of Florida, these rare Coastal Dune Lakes are found only in the northwest region, located in a 26-mile strip of shoreline along the Emerald Coast.

"I describe them as 15 jewels. You know, one is a diamond, one is a ruby, one is a sapphire. And they're all set in a different setting. They're all delicately set, almost like a ring would be. With high white, white, the highest white on the scale, is the color of the sand here," says Cindy Meadows, a county commissioner in Walton County.

She's helped form a volunteer council that does outreach and education, and samples water quality in the lakes every month. But she says the usual arguments of property rights versus regulation are in full play here.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Walton County Commissioner Cindy Meadows

"And then we have some legal battles over who owns the outfall, and the outfall may meander," she says. "The outfall may meander on someone else's property, And they want to fill it in and close it off. It's a constant struggle with these outfalls, because they meander all over the place, as you know."

I spoke to Elam Stoltzfus last year, when he was filming a scene at nearby Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. We were greeted with heavy winds coming off the Gulf.

"We have a body of water that connects to the Gulf of Mexico, but it's right behind these 30-foot-plus-high sand dunes," he says. "And through history, this area's always evolving. And so you have a lake that doesn't know what kind of lake it wants to be, because part of the time it's fresh water - and it can actually reverse itself - and have salt water come into the lake. So you have plants that are evolving, because it's trying to be fresh water, but also same as the marine life, you have certain kinds of fish are here when it's salt water, and other kinds are here when it's fresh water."

Stoltzfus says he's trying to shed light on these lakes to protect them.

Aerial view of Draper Lake outfall into the Gulf

"And so what's happening now is development is encroaching on some of the lakes, but who wouldn't want to live here? Who wouldn't want to have a community here?" he says. "And so one of the things we're constantly learning through science and hopefully maybe some common sense and education, is how do you interact with these lakes? What can you do and what shouldn't you do? How do they work? And what makes them so rare?"

Stoltzfus, his son Nick and I get a tour of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. Park ranger Jeff Talbert says it's one of the largest preserved stretches of the Coastal Dune Lakes, and has sand dunes towering 50 feet over the beach. This landscape dates back to the time when glaciers covered much of North America.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Elam Stoltfus, left, with Jeff Talbert at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

"This is - I call it the cordillera - this is like a mountain range here," says Talbert. "But it swoops down and then kind of curves to the coast. And it's just how the winds and the waves deposited the sand over five thousand or so years."

Talbert likes to sometimes get out here at dawn. He says each of the Coastal Dune Lakes is a little different from the others.

"A dune lake to me is a place of peace. I like to go out there in the morning, before the fog lifts off the ground and just be next to the lake and take in the quiet," he says. "You never know what's going to happen. Sometimes an alligator comes up, sometimes an osprey or an eagle flies over, if its in the spring migration, you get migratory birds coming through. And it's always different. The lake has its own character."

Because Walton County escaped the development pressures of its' neighbors, Coastal Dune Lakes survive here in more or less their natural state - unlike similar lakes in tourist traps like Panama City Beach and Destin.

Sarah Shindele is grant coordinator for the Choctahatchee Basin Alliance. They do monitoring and restoration of the lakes, relying on a squad of volunteers.

There have been high levels of nutrients such as phosphorous in some lakes, such as Oyster Lake. She says the usual culprits are fertilizer from lawns lining the lake, and stormwater runoff after rains. Like many places in Florida, the biggest threat to these lakes is development.

"One of the beautiful objectives we could strive for would be to just buy up all of the parcels of land that the outfalls cover," she says. "But not very practical. Not really enough money floating around to buy beachfront property and scoop those up.

Shindele says there's not a lot of knowledge beyond this stretch of the coastal Panhandle about what a unique resource this is.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Sarah Shindele

"I think it's because don't know they're here," says Shindele. "People don't know they exist, that they're this special thing - because they're hidden. So a big portion of what we do in terms of education is to reach out to scientific professionals, people in the scientific community. And we've tried to draw people here to do research. So I kind of think that the word is getting out, and of course with this documentary and other efforts like this, people are kind of catching on to the fact that they're here."

Meadows, the Commissioner who represents this coastal region, is trying to get public pressure to help limit the number of homes built around these lakes.

"As we go through this process of as we try to get more recognition - statewide recognition and even national recognition of the rarity and the uniqueness of these Coastal Dune Lakes - is that we need the citizenry to get behind us," says Meadows. "We need people to email their state legislators, their commissioners, their elected officials. Get involved."

And she says that involvement could be what these gems strung along the Gulf need, to continue to shine far into the future.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News

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