In the wake of the environmental collapse of Lake Apopka due to pollution, the St. Johns River Water Management District purchased almost 20,000 acres of farmland along the north shore of Lake Apopka in the 1990’s to restore to natural wetlands. (photo by Meghan Mangrum)

Cautionary Tale: 20 years later, Lake Apopka is a 48-square-mile lesson in the importance of keeping pollution out of Florida’s waters in the first place.

By Meghan Mangrum

Nestled in the middle of the state north of Orlando, Lake Apopka was once famous for its bass-fishing, with more than 20 fish camps along its shore. Actors like Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart were said to have frequented the 1927 Edgewater Hotel in Winter Garden to fish for lunkers in the gorgeous, peaceful waters.

Yet, something else surrounded the lake, reaching closer to its shores – muck farms. These farms, once the economic bedrock of northern Central Florida communities such as Mount Dora and Zellwood, and the fertilizer and pesticide runoff from their soil, along with waste from a citrus processing plant, fueled decades of pollution that turned the heydays into something hellish.

Algae bloomed, oxygen was sapped from the lake, phosphorous levels rose and the fish died. At its most polluted, Lake Apopka’s phosphorous levels jumped to more than 200 parts per billion. (State environmental regulators consider 55 parts per billion the maximum phosphorus load the lake can take.)

Lake Apopka is one of the most well-known stories of pollution in the state, and 2016 marks twenty years since the late Governor Lawton Chiles signed the promising Lake Apopka Restoration Act of 1996, leading to a $100 million plus buyout of muck farm lands surrounding the lake.

The buyout led to the largest restorative effort of such lands in Florida history, according to Gian Basilli, bureau chief of water resources for St. Johns River Water Management District.

“There aren’t too many opportunities to restore 20,000 acres of wetlands,” Basilli said.

But the road to restoration has been long and costly, making Lake Apopka Florida’s 48-square-mile cautionary tale of the importance of keeping pollution out of waters in the first place, rather than assuming restoration technology will be able to fix them.

Beginning in the 1980’s, some farm land was purchased to create the Marsh Flow-Way project, a 760-acre wetland system that cycles the lake water through to rid it of pollutants.

When it became clear that this effort would not be enough to improve water quality, the St. Johns district and its partners, such as the long-serving community organization Friends of Lake Apopka, worked for better options.

“Originally the plan was to manage the run-off from these farms,” said Erich Marzolf, division director of water and land resources for St. Johns. Purchasing those 20,000 acres was not “on the district’s horizon” before the 1996 state-mandated buyout.

Simply re-flooding the acquired lands wasn’t an option due to the pesticides and the loss of five to six feet of soil from decades of farming. The deaths of hundreds of bird that flock to the area every year, in 1998 and 1999, grimly brought this fact home.

According to a report commissioned for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2004, at least 676 birds were found dead at Lake Apopka from November 1998 to April 1999. Bird species included herons, egrets, storks, pelicans and ducks.

“To be able to come in and restore 20,000 acres and to gives these birds wetlands is really important for the viability of their species,” Basilli, who is also an avid bird-watcher, said.

In the early 2000’s, scientists set out to restore the lands for wildlife. First, the district had to find a way to remove the pesticides, which it did through the use of a Baker plow that flips the topsoil with safer soil below, allowing for the lingering chemicals to break down, Basilli said. This process removed as much as 70 percent of toxic compounds from the soil, according to the district.

Fisherman Sunny Nguyen watches gizzard shad move up a conveyor belt, his haul earlier this spring from Lake Apopka. (photo by Meghan Mangrum)

Those lands were then re-flooded and planted with dense vegetation such as sawgrass and other native plant species Only after five years of re-flooding and a clean bill of health will they be considered safe for wildlife. Basilli said the district hopes to reach this goal for the entire northern shore restoration effort by 2021.

“The legacy of this effort is it illustrates the efforts and costs of restoring these lands,” he said. “We’ve seen that is cheaper to prevent the pollution than to go back in and restore them later.”

Another vital process for restoring the lake’s water quality since the mid-1990’s, has been the harvesting of gizzard shad (a bottom-feeder fish that is 1 percent phosphorus) that once made up 90 percent of the fish population in Lake Apopka. Gizzard shad can survive in algae-polluted lakes, especially since many of its natural predators, such as alligators and large-mouth bass, had decreased in numbers.

The harvesting of the gizzard shad has also provided some economic opportunities to the community, whose agriculture industry took a hit after the farm buyout.

“It’s about the only way you can make a living anymore,” said Clayton Jones, a commercial fisherman who has been working the shad harvest season, which ended March 5, for the past three years. Fisherman are paid 26 cents a pound for the fish. On average, they can bring in a daily haul between 1,000 and 3,000 pounds.

“It helps the ecosystem of the lake,” Jones said. “The lake [water] looks a lot better out here than it did before.”

The lake looks better, and it is better. Phosphorous levels are currently at an all-time low – in recent years, around 63 parts per billion – and continue to decrease even amid fluxes in water levels due to natural cycles such as droughts. The district’s restoration goals are shooting for 55 parts per billion.

As the health of the area around the lake has improved, birds have returned and now Lake Apopka sees a great diversity of species, second only to Everglades National Park in the state.

The district and its partners hope that not only will Lake Apopka and the wetlands along its northern shore provide valuable habitat for Florida’s wildlife, but can also become a destination and resource for the community as it was a century ago. Recreational opportunities include hiking, biking, and horseback riding on Clay Island and on the Lake Apopka Loop Trail, as well as a unique 11-mile wildlife drive that is open three-days a week for motorized vehicles.

“One of the unique things is can we restore the lands to be viable economic engines in the community,” Basilli said. As wildlife habitat is restored, more and more bird species will also linger in the area, which is already known for record number of species, in turn bringing more visitors to the region.

Restoration efforts are nowhere near complete, though. Large-mouth bass have yet to return in droves to the lake, and the Environmental Protection Agency has issued consumption warnings for eight different fish species since 2006, including a ‘no consumption’ advisory on catfish and brown bullhead fish. The locals are split. Some will fish the lake and eat what they catch, but the general thinking is that the lake and its life remain unsafe.

Only time and significant continued effort will heal these waters, and that’s what the saga of Lake Apopka shows: The time and effort it takes to repair decades of destruction, as well as what can be gained from saving such valuable habitat.

“We’ve seen that is cheaper to prevent the pollution than to go back in and restore them later.” Gian Basilli, bureau chief of water resources, St. Johns River Water Management District.

About Project Blue Ether

WUFT News is publishing this multi-week series on water by University of Florida students, led by award-winning environmental journalist and author Cynthia Barnett, who is a visiting professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.