coming out of my shell

coming out of my shell

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Resurrection of Lake Apopka

Florida is all about water. Being a peninsula, it is surrounded by water. The rainy season is akin to the deluge.  In fact, one-fifth of the State of Florida consists of water. There are 30,000 lakes in Florida, and about 75 of these are considered large lakes. We are lucky in that we live near a big lake and spend a lot of time biking, hiking, wildlife watching there.  If you read my earlier blog, Alligator Days, you will see photos of a very small area of this lovely lake and the canals that exist nearby.

Lake Apopka is either the third, fourth, or fifth largest lake in Florida, depending on what you read. Sorry to be so vague, but the www-based uncertainty on this subject is massive and searching for precise information has kept me frustrated for more hours than I care to admit.  I give up.  It is either #3, #4, or #5 and that is the best I can do

Lake Apopka
used to be a huge tourist attraction, famous for fishing camps and world-class bass fishing. At one time there were as many as 29 fishing camps on the lake, attracting tourists from all over the country hoping to catch trophy-sized bass. Now it has the distinction of being Florida's most polluted large lake.

Interestingly, it was once the second largest lake in Florida.  However, in 1941 a levee was built at the north end of the lake. The levee drained 20,000 acres of Lake Apopka. That reduced the size of the lake dramatically. The purpose was to add farmland, aiding in the war effort to produce more vegetables.  It was a well meaning effort that set the stage for disaster.

There are still people around who remember the lake as once so pristine you could see the bottom
, but by 1950 it was already becoming murky with algae. Phosphorous and pesticides from farms bordering the lake, especially ones on the newly drained north end, continued to seep into the water. Local communities discharged treated wastewater into the lake up until the 1980's. By the early 1960's the fish began dying. Then, in 1980 a local pesticide company illegally dumped significant amounts of toxic chemicals into Lake Apopka. 

In the early 1990's a group of environmentally minded local folks from a variety of interest groups came together to form the Friends of Lake Apopka (FOLA). Their intention was to find ways to buy the drained farmland and reclaim the land from the farms who were discharging phosphorus laden water into the lake basin."

The St. Johns River Water Management District "and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) purchased almost all of the farms for restoration between 1988 and 2001."  Apparently 15,000 acres of drained farmland were purchased.

What an amazing effort. Buying all that land must have cost a pretty penny. Thank you real estate interests, environmentalists, business interests, taxpayers, state and federal governments. I am not being sarcastic. I love it when people come together, step up, and do the right thing; especially when it is a very hard thing to do.

The fish were not the only creatures who died because of the lake's polluted waters. Fish eating birds did, too, even years after restoration began. At one point in the 1990's the new stewards of the lake tried flooding the drained land. "The birds returned by the thousands. Unfortunately, pesticide residue in the fish they ate killed almost a thousand white pelicans, wood storks and great blue herons, and the land was drained again."  It boggles the mind.

You find American Alligators in just about any body of water in Florida. It doesn't have to be a lake. I have seen them sunning themselves alongside man-made retention ponds in area subdivisions adjacent to the West Orange (bike) TrailHere's one I saw last week:

Alligator on lower left sunning itself beside a subdivision retention pond

Alligators in Lake Apopka are famous for having suffered reproductive abnormalities and growth defects from the polluted waters.  Fertility issues related to pesticides significantly diminished the numbers of alligators in the lake between 1980 and 1987.
Alligator at Lake Apopka, October 2015
An alarming number of farmworkers from the vegetable muck farms formerly established at the north end of the lake subsequently developed lupus.  This was likely caused by overexposure to pesticides when picking, cutting, and packaging the vegetables grown on the muck farms.  Of course, it could also be from the crop dusters that routinely flew overhead, dusting the fields and the people working in the fields with pesticides. What kind of person sprays pesticides on their employees?  

For a year and a half we have lived near this big lake. It is 12 miles long and nearly 8 miles wide. We often bike to Newton Park, a small city park on Lake Apopka just off the West Orange Trail. I have only seen a boat on the water twice. About a year ago we saw a small water management boat on the water, but just last month we saw a sailboat!  That was exciting.

Sailboat on Lake Apopka, October 2015
It is now 2015 and returning this lake to health is still an ongoing project. Although things are definitely getting better because of restoration efforts, I often wonder if it will return to full health in my lifetime. FOLA says it will. I hope they are right.

Recent news coverage said that in the 20 years already spent actively trying to bring the lake back to health “Taxpayers have dumped more than $200 million into Lake Apopka, and it’s still one of the sickest lakes in the state.”  The good news is that a new treatment is being used and it seems hopeful. The problem with the lake is that there is significant muck accumulation at the bottom of the lake (up to 15 feet deep in certain areas). The new treatment involves pumping oxygen into the water and then using bacteria to “eat” the muck. The news story quoted above indicates that if this new treatment works it might only take 20 more years before the lake is healthy again...

I am not an expert on any of these matters. I can only tell you what I have read and comment on what I have observed. If you are not the type to be moved simply by the loss of the lake's natural beauty or the loss of wildlife, then perhaps you should consider the loss to the local economy. There are no fishing camps anymore, so all those potential tourists are not coming here to spend their money in the towns surrounding the lake.

The FOLA people deserve massive kudos.  They have a respectful practicality regarding restoration and they are currently concentrating on Ecotourism. There are now at least two beautiful nature preserves carved out of the land surrounding the lake. Biking and hiking trails invite us to commune with the natural world. A new one-way, car-based drive takes people on self-driven explorations along the many canals that must have been created for the orange growing industry once prospering around the lake. I like to think of this drive as an alligator safari.  Last time we took that drive we counted 31 alligators! Native trees and other flora have been planted in a respectful effort to return the land to the way it once was. 

Perhaps we still cannot eat the fish, but at least now we can enjoy being near the lake. It is an amazingly beautiful lake to look at. That is, as long as you do not look into the dark pea green color of the water...

View from the dock at Newton Park on Lake Apopka.  The water in this picture is less than 2 feet deep but you cannot see the bottom.


  1. Quite the good news, bad news situation. Even if not in our lifetime, good is happening.

  2. Heartbreaking. But yes, thank god for people like those belonging to FLOA. I've always wished I could be that kind of person, out there helping to make good things happen, I'm not, but I have great respect for those that are!

    I simply don't know how I could be at ease knowing that there were that many crocodiles around me! Sounds so dangerous, but I guess you all get used to them. Florida sounds like such a strange place to me, but I only hear people who live there say how wonderful it is. There certainly are wonderful people there!

    1. You do get used to the alligators. They have bad eyesight, and they usually stay in the water and mind their own business. Even when they are sunning themselves, they ignore people if you keep a good distance from them. People who get attacked are often swimming places they should not be swimming. You will never catch me swimming anyplace in Florida but a backyard pool! It is different, though.

  3. This was really interesting! I am both a planner and an environmentalist and am proud to have preserved over 2500 acres as permanent open space. It is really criminal what man has done to the earth but I have learned that, if left alone, the earth will reclaim itself. Thank goodness for that and for the folks who work to help it along.

    (I will be in Florida in January and am hoping to visit the Everglades)

    1. You should be proud! That's a great accomplishment. So much of the land in Central Florida is being lost to over-development. It makes me very nervous. I have never been to the Everglades, but hope to some time soon. I think it should be amazing.

  4. It's been over 2 decades since I lived in Florida; I'm glad such strides have been made in reclaiming the land. =)

  5. Awesome read! I love to be in nature! What a sad story this lake area has suffered, however. Interesting that the farm workers developed lupus, too.

    1. It is what your Grandma would have called "A sin and a shame."

  6. I read a very good book about Florida and the Audubon Society not long ago called " The Year of Necessary Lies" by Kris Radish. You might enjoy it. It's good hear that people are trying to rehabilitate lakes and natural areas.


So, whadayathink?