Message from Executive Director
Mike Register, P.E.
Our work continues as Lake Apopka rebounds
Jan. 26, 2023
Fishermen unload a day’s catch of gizzard shad during a harvest from Lake Apopka in 2010.
Everyone loves a comeback story.
Lake Apopka, one of the state’s largest lakes, has long been known for its degraded water quality and declining game fish population. Now, after over 40 years of restoration efforts by the St. Johns River Water Management District and our partners, the lake has reached another significant milestone on its way to recovery.
Historically, Lake Apopka was a world class bass fishery that brought anglers from all over the world. In between the fish camps and hotels that dotted the lake’s shoreline, farmers worked their land. A serene setting for anyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of nearby Orlando. As time passed, nutrient-laden runoff from the surrounding land areas flowed into the lake, fueling a continuous algal bloom that shaded the lake’s vegetation and over time severely degraded the water quality. A once thriving fishing destination became one of the state’s most polluted lakes.
In 1996, a turning point came. At the direction of the Florida Legislature, the District purchased the farmland along the lake’s north shore. Soon after, work began to restore nearly 20,000 acres back to wetlands.
By 2003, the District had completed construction of an engineered wetland system on a 760-acre section of the acquired land, known as the Marsh Flow-way. The Marsh Flow-way is a system of levees, canals and wetlands that acts like a kidney for the lake’s water. Each year, about 30–40 percent of the lake’s volume moves through the flow-way, and wetland plants filter out algae and nutrients, like phosphorus. The flow-way is incredibly effective: from 2003 to 2019, the system removed an average of 2.2 metric tons of phosphorus per year.
Over the years, the District has been able to reduce the concentration of phosphorus in the lake through a variety of projects, including gizzard shad harvesting (which to date has removed over 231,000 pounds of phosphorus from the lake), planting of submerged aquatic plants (which helps filter nutrients and provides habitat), and several infrastructure improvement projects that treat stormwater runoff to reduce nutrient inputs.
One of the four wetland treatment cells that filters nutrients and sediment from Lake Apopka’s water.
Thanks to these efforts and many other ongoing projects, Lake Apopka recently hit a major milestone in its recovery. In 2022, for the first time since restoration efforts began, the mean annual phosphorus concentration for the lake was below the target level. What does that mean? It means the lake is on the right track and recovery efforts are paying off.
Wildlife has returned to both the lake and the surrounding area. Anglers catch large bass again, and visitors to the District’s Lake Apopka North Shore and Wildlife Drive see alligators, turtles, otters, bears and bobcats. The site is considered one of the most renowned birding destinations in Florida, with 372 different bird species recorded on the property.
Comebacks are not easy; they take time, and there’s rarely a single solution. This is a celebratory moment for the state, including legislators, scientists, hydrologists and residents who have worked for many years to recover the lake. But we know the work isn’t finished. In the process of a comeback, you don’t quit, you set new goals and you continue to strive to meet them.
Learn more about the District’s restoration efforts at Lake Apopka at www.sjrwmd.com/projects/#lake-apopka.