Clean up efforts improve conditions in Central Florida Lake
Canals in the marsh flow-way move water into and out of the four marsh treatment cells (upper left) and Lake Apopka. [Photo: St. Johns River Water Management District]
Source: St. Johns River Water Management District
Lake Apopka, Florida's fourth-largest lake, is a shallow, 30,000-acre giant that at points stretches for more than 12 miles north to south and nearly 10 miles across, sprawling through west Orange County and east Lake County. Its waters trickle north into the Harris Chain of Lakes, the tree-shaded Ocklawaha River, the St. Johns and on to the sea at Jacksonville.
Used and abused for decades, Lake Apopka has begun to recover from a near-fatal case of nutrient overload. In the early 1900s, clean and a third larger than today, the lake was an angler's haven. But its fortunes declined beginning in the 1940s and 1950s after much of its north shore was drained and cleared for farming on the muck. Meanwhile, small towns and citrus juice plants began piping their runoff into the lake. By the 1970s, Lake Apopka was a sickly shade of green, bass and boaters were long gone and the future looked bleak.
The lake took its first steps toward recovery in the 1990s, when the state began buying up the muck farms, the federal government outlawed the dumping of effluent and locals formed a group to lobby for more aggressive restoration.
Helping the lake to heal is the powerful spring that feeds it an average of more than 17 million gallons of fresh water daily from the Floridan Aquifer.
Though still far from healthy, the lake shows clear signs of improvement, according to scientists, regulators and others who attended the first annual Lake Apopka Restoration Summit in Clermont in December.
Some farmland has become marsh again, and wading birds are flocking to the lake in stunning numbers. Phosphorus levels have decreased steadily, beds of eelgrass are expanding and the trend for bass-fingerling survival has improved.
A system of marsh flow-ways acts as a natural filter for water flowing north into Lake County, says David Walker, manager of the restoration project for St. Johns.
"The fish in the lake," Walker says, "are completely safe to eat."