Lakewood Ranch takes part in water cleansing experiment.
University of Florida researcher Basil Iannone knows having plants in ponds benefits the native ecosystems, creating habitats for fish and other wildlife.
But during the next year, he will use Lakewood Ranch retention ponds to try to prove plants also improve water quality.
Since late June, more than 7,500 plants have been added along the banks of five ponds in Phase 1 Lakewood Ranch. The idea is the plants will consume runoff nutrients from fertilizers, which can cause unsightly algae blooms, and help prevent soil erosion. Each planted pond is paired with a similar nonplanted lake for comparison.
Iannone will measure water clarity, algae quantities and inorganic and organic levels of phosphorous and nitrogen — chemicals essential to plant health, but also that feed unwanted algae.
Healthy ponds, he said, should have clearer water and lower nutrient levels, which also should translate into more wildlife and fewer algae blooms — all benefits for the residents who view them.
“I want to know what are the ecological effects of the plantings,” Iannone said. “We would expect to see a decrease
in nutrients if the plants are benefiting water quality.”
The project is a partnership between the University of Florida, which is using a $5,000 research grant from the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscaping Association, and the Lakewood Ranch Inter-District Authority, aquatic systems contractor Altec Lakes & Natural Areas and landscape contractor Down to Earth Inc. Contractors provided plants at cost and helped plant them.
IDA Operations Director Paul Chetlain said the IDA selected “high profile” ponds so residents can see how the plants enhance the look of the ponds. Each has a different variety of plantings to see which plants perform best and also showcase a diverse offering for future projects.
Chetlain said pond aesthetics are a major concern for residents, and this is the first time the aquatics and landscape contractors have worked together for a more holistic approach to pond maintenance.
The IDA has struggled for years to establish and maintain plantings along pond banks, Chetlain said. Aquatic plants have frequently died for unknown reasons, and there are challenges with mowing grass along chronically wet or steep pond banks. He hopes the project will address those concerns and create a template for future success.
“We’re interested in looking at different things with the pond banks and developing best practices,” Chetlain said. “We’re really trying to change the dynamics of the ponds.”
University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Manatee Extension Agent Michelle Atkinson said IFAS’ interest in Lakewood Ranch ponds began about eight years ago when the IDA brought in UF researchers to better understand homeowners’ opinions of retention ponds and how they should look. There also was a Protect Our Ponds advisory group that worked to educate the public about retention ponds, as well as Manatee County’s fertilizer ordinance.
The University of Florida developed a planting palette, as seen behind Lakewood Ranch Town Hall, to showcase plants that could be used along pond banks behind individuals’ homes. Lakewood Ranch Community Development District officials considered a pond bank planting policy that would have allowed homeowners to plant behind their homes, but did not approve it because of regulatory concerns. Homeowners also felt like plants would obstruct their views of lakes and attract rats, alligators and other unwanted critters, Atkinson said.
The IDA this year offered to plant on district common areas, and the study followed suit. Atkinson said she hopes findings of the study can help other communities like Lakewood Ranch improve pond health.