Restoring Lake Apopka

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APOPKA, FL | Once a thriving gem of Central Florida, the Lake Apopka Restoration Area (LARA) is on a long, interesting path back to health and significance within the community.
The 2014 Resolution AR takes place at the LARA which could not have been possible without decades of civil action and restoration efforts.
There was a time when anglers from absolutely everywhere took to Lake Apopka for world-class bass fishing. In 1950 there were nearly 30 fish camps operating at the lake anchoring a flourishing little economic area.
By 1985 there were no fish camps in operation and all the bass had disappeared. The 40 miles of, now cloudy, shoreline, the second biggest lake in Florida, was named Florida's Most Polluted Lake after a long history of abuse and neglect.
The Lake Apopka Timeline (saga) starts in 1880 with the construction of the Apopka-Beauclair Canal, a waterway used for local agricultural needs, which ultimately lowered water levels by one third. Fast forward to the 1940s when farming operations took over 20,000 acres of wetlands (while also supplying the lake with over fifty years of phosphorus-rich discharges), and it didn’t take long for the once proud pond to shamefully be known as the “green” lake.
Untreated green water of Lake Apopka | Pangea Adventure RacingIt deteriorated relatively quickly starting with the farming discharges (which went on until the late 1990s) adding to the sewage wastewater from Winter Garden and citrus processing plant discharges that had already been going on since the 1920s.
The green came from nutrients expelled into the lake leading to a chronic algae bloom. The cloudy “pea” green water prevented sunlight from sustaining most underwater vegetation and the habitat broke.
Game fish made up 60% of the fish population in 1950 but seven years later it was down to 18%. The rest were Gizzard Shad; a “trash fish” whose normal value is being food for bass and other predators. Now they were the only fish able to survive the low oxygen conditions of the lake while eating and digesting the tainted organic matter on the bottom which activates all the dormant phosphorus particles.
Gizzard shad are actually edible but taste so bad that not even cat food companies will use them in their products.
The decline of Lake Apopka was certainly noticed but more marsh was becoming farmland and city wastewater was increasing. Citizen awareness and call for action initiated in the late 1960s to moderate success with State and Federal restoration efforts beginning in 1970.
The efforts were considered worth it in 1977 when University of Florida researchers declared that the lake is “not getting any dirtier.” A nice accomplishment when you consider the damage done to it in the century prior.
At the very least it appeared that the bleeding had stopped. A noble achievement if anything but the lake was still broken.

Ten years later the Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) Act was passed by Florida Legislature naming Lake Apopka as a priority for restoration with holistic approaches. The St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) was tasked with providing research for and managing future restoration projects.
A few year later, 1991, citizens concerned about the lack of follow-up to the Act formed an advocacy group called the Friends of Lake Apopka (FOLA) whose goal is to be proactive with restoration using sound scienctific approaches.
The group was able to work with legislators to ensure farming activity would stop, funding would be provided, and the SJRWMD would be in charge of all the efforts. With the District in charge and the Friends working on the Lake’s behalf, real restoration began and the ongoing clean up has been an incredible success.

Among all rebuilding endeavors, the first and most obvious direction was cleaning (clearing) up the water mainly removing the phosphorus (P) and other suspended sentiments. This was done in two major ways by creating a filtration process (Marsh Flow-Way) and by physically removing the “trash” Gizzard Shad.
Lake Apopka Marsh Flow-Way in action | Pangea Adventure Racing The Marsh Flow-Way project is a 760 acre constructed wetland that pumps dirty water through dense vegetation to remove inactive P and suspended soils. The clean water gets pumped back into the lake while the rest flows toward a nutrient removal facility.
Racers at the Resolution AR will get to see this in action as the event takes place all around the structure.
Since starting operation in 2003, the flow-way has removed over 20 metric tons of total phosphorus and it removes more than 4 metric tons of suspended soil per year. The process is as good as it sounds with green algae filled water flowing in one side and clean clear water pumped out the other.
While the flow way filters out the inactive P, shad harvesting takes out the soluble (active) phosphorus and nitrogen which the cloudy algae blooms rely on to grow.
Harvesting the Gizzard Shad removes the P held in their body tissue from the lake and the ability for them to digest and activate more.
The harvesting program started in 1993 and for the first time in 2009 there was a dramatic drop in annual removal. The declining catch rate and size of the shad reflect a real effectiveness of the program. Sunshine bass were introduced back into the lake to feed on the shad in attempt to restore the natural food chain.
Those are two examples of the many projects on going to rebuild the lake and surrounding area. Some of the focus can now be on restoring the recreational aspect. The development of fishing, bird watching, trail systems, and boat access are some of things that could bring the lake back to being a great place for the public to visit and use.

Cleaned up canal on Lake Apopka | Pangea Adventure Racing Pangea is proud to hold the 2014 Resolution AR at the LARA and feel good that everyone will be able to paddle on the once great lake. We rely on the great natural lands here in Florida in order to produce high-quality adventure races. The long standing restoration efforts of Lake Apopka has allowed us to explore this historic land together.
Hopefully it is another positive step in bringing the Lake back to prominence.

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Comment by Steve DeMoor | January 22, 2014

What a neat treasure this property is! It had beautiful waterways, a variety of wildlife, and well groomed trails perfect for day hikes or bike rides. What a great story to read that they have improved the land and the lake so much. For my part, I say it was well worth the effort and I'll surely be back to explore it again.

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