Hydrilla is strangling Osceola’s West Lake Toho

On a sunny Monday afternoon boat ride on West Lake Tohopekaliga, Captain Steve Niemoeller speeds past rows of large homes with empty docks surrounded by a thick bed of aquatic weeds.

Niemoeller had to reverse his bass boat’s motor every 10 minutes or so to spin off the slimy green vegetation that could otherwise cause him to get stranded on the roughly 20,000 acres of lake.

After 24 years on the lake, he knows how to navigate hydrilla, an invasive Asian weed that grows rapidly in these waters. But those who have less experience don’t fare as well.

“I’ve had to rescue so many Jet Skis out here because they get stuck,” Niemoeller said. “Those people who own those homes don’t have boats anymore because they don’t know how to navigate the hydrilla.”

West Lake Toho, once known as a premier bass fishing lake, is slowly losing its appeal due to the rapidly increasing amount of hydrilla. Osceola County officials are pressing the state for help, but there’s little money available to eradicate the weed.

What’s more, a controversial proposal by state and federal water managers to store more water in the county’s lakes is diverting attention from the battle against hydrilla.

The aquatic plant management department at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that roughly 80% of West Lake Toho is inundated with invasive plant species. Hydrilla, a plant believed to have been imported to Florida from Sri Lanka, is plaguing many of the state’s lakes, but West Lake Toho has one of the worst infestations.

“This used to be a popular spot to fish about a year ago but now you can’t even get your boat in there or your line,” Niemoeller said, pointing to a particular spot on the lake where birds now sit easily on the thick hydrilla.

Niemoeller has long made his living off West Lake Toho through his fishing charter and pontoon boat business, but lately he’s worried his livelihood is at stake.

Similarly, Osceola County real estate agent Tim St. Gordon worries homes surrounding the lake are losing their value as boating becomes impractical.

“The lakefront values have already been affected because anyone that lives here understands that West Lake is not a great lake for boating or Jet Skiing,” St.Gordon said. “How many people really want to move their families there and have a home on the lakefront that you can’t enjoy?”

St. Gordon said he has had clients pull out of deals or look at homes in other areas because of the problem.

Osceola county commissioners are worried about hydrilla as well. At a meeting in early March, they discussed creating a working group of local and regional stakeholders to come up with ways to finance the lake’s upkeep.

“Definitely there needs to be more pressure,” Chairperson Cheryl Grieb said. Grieb said she believes the only real solution is to reduce lake levels to eradicate the hydrilla, but that’s a lengthy process.

But pressure has already been applied to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to no avail. In January, FWC biologist Ed Harris told a crowd of Osceola residents that the state’s budget for hydrilla removal has been inadequate for years.

For 2022 through 2023 the FWC budget for ecosystem assessment and restoration was just over $18 million, and that’s not much money when spread throughout the state, FWC spokesperson Kristen Turner said in an email. She said hydrilla management can cost $1,000 per acre during the initial control process.

“Staff are aware of concerns about the level of hydrilla on Lake Toho,” Turner said.

With roughly 20,000 acres, removing hydrilla from the lake would cost roughly $20 million, using Turner’s cost estimate.

But even if more money could be found, stakeholders like the South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have larger concerns than hydrilla removal.

The Corps of Engineers and the district have proposed to raise water levels across Osceola lakes to store more water throughout the year.

The proposal concerned county officials enough that Grieb wrote a letter in February to the Corps of Engineers pleading for lake levels to be lowered instead. While the Corps is focused on water supply, the county is more concerned about limiting flooding and controlling hydrilla.

“This isn’t a hypothetical concern, less than two years ago, Osceola County experienced severe flooding for weeks following the impacts of Hurricane Ian,” the letter said. “Your team on the ground saw first-hand the inability to move water through Lake Tohopekaliga and the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes when water levels were substantially higher.”

In the letter Grieb “urged” the Corps of Engineers to include flood mitigation and water restoration projects in its 2025 work plan and help fund hydrilla removal.

“All of Osceola County’s lakes and rivers are suffering from years of sediment buildup and invasive plant species, resulting in a substantially diminished ability for these waterways to naturally handle any future flood-event waters,” the letter said.

Controlling hydrilla is a balancing act, Niemoeller said. The fish like the vegetation and it helps keep the water clear. But excess hydrilla, he fears, is killing Lake Toho.

“We need some hydrilla but this is way too much,” he said. “I’m surprised the people who bought those homes haven’t complained sooner.”