Navigating on Istokpoga – the Responsibility Maze

By Clell Ford, Highlands County Lakes Manager


      Who is responsible for what on Istokpoga?  That question comes up often in conversations with lakefront residents, concerned citizens and even the agencies that are charged with managing the lake’s resources.  The Lake Istokpoga Management Committee is wading into the fray, proposing to develop a management plan for the lake.  One of the first steps in this process is to find out what the areas of responsibility are for Istokpoga, and then to find out who actually is responsible that area.  After that, a decision on how far from the lake shore to carry the question has to be made, but that is a discussion for another day.

      First on the responsibility list is aquatic plant management.  Few people familiar with the lake for the last two decades would disagree that aquatic weed control has been the major area of contention in the management of Istokpoga’s resources.  The Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Aquatic and Invasive Plant management  is responsible for approving all aquatic plant management activities, and they are responsible for the large-scale control of Hydrilla on Istokpoga.  The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is responsible for habitat management – removal and revegetation – of aquatic vegetation.  The County Aquatic Weed Control Program, manage aquatic plants using FDEP approved plans.

      Management of lake water levels has been critical to Florida’s government and business leaders literally since statehood in 1845.  We continue to battle against nature to make it possible to live in a very wet state.  Istokpoga is no exception – in fact without control of water levels, both the residential development around the lake and the agriculture south of the lake would be flooded on a regular basis.  As most folks realize, water level control is made possible by the S-68 structure and the C-41A canal southeast of the lake.  These were installed in 1962 by the Central and South Florida Flood Control District, part of the larger series of canals and flood control structures built by the US Army Corps of Engineers.  The CSF District, now called the South Florida Water Management District, manages the lake levels following the USACE regulation schedule approved by the US Congress. 

      Water quality is always at the top of my list of important issues, but the FDEP’s Bureau of Watersheds, SFWMD and USACE are actually responsible for protecting water quality in Istokpoga.  Add in the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services when discussing water quality throughout the Istokpoga watershed.  Istokpoga has made the FDEP’s “verified list” of water bodies in which water quality is poor and for which nutrient limit rules will be developed.  The form that these total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs, will take is to be worked out over the next couple of years.  You will be hearing a lot more about TMDLs in the very near future.

      Responsibility for the fishery and other aquatic organisms on Istokpoga is well defined.  The FFWCC, working with the County, established the Istokpoga Fish Management Area in 1998.  FFWCC makes and enforces fishing rules for Istokpoga.  The US Fish and Wildlife service also plays a role in protection of fish habitat, but only for that affected by federal projects.  They become much more involved with the protection of wading birds and threatened and endangered species – FDEP, FFWCC and even the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service have responsibilities for protecting what are known T and E species.  The Snail Kite, on the federal endangered species list, is the most recent species observed on Istokpoga. 

      Dredge and fill of wetlands in and around Istokpoga, including maintenance work in navigation channels, is regulated by the FDEP’s Bureau of Submerged Lands for individual homeowners, by SFWMD for residential developments, by the NRCS for agricultural projects and by the USACE.  Any land owner who builds seawalls, dig channels or fills wetlands without permits from the proper agencies faces a fine and having to pay to have their expensive work undone.

      There are several other groups that do work on Istokpoga, but who must go through these other agencies for proper permissions.  Highlands County departments responsible for various projects on the lake include the Natural Resources Department, Engineering Department and Aquatic Weed Control program.  Ultimately the responsibility for protecting Istokpoga is up to all of us – we are the stewards for this lake and all its resources.  If you see things happening that you know should not be, don’t be afraid to let the proper authorities know – call our office, the Highlands County Natural Resources Department (402-6545) and we will do what we can to guide you through this maze of bureaucracy


Clell Ford is the lakes management specialist for Highlands County.  He is located in the Highlands Soil and Water Conservation District / County Natural Resources Department office and can be reached at 402-6545, or by e-mail at  Visit our web site at