For 24 years, the Friends of Lake Apopka have generated grassroots interest and dedication for the restoration, conservation, exploration and education of Orange County’s largest lake.
In its 25th year, this society of volunteers has resolved to focus on ecotourism as a means of expanding its reach.
“We have now reached a point where we feel there is no danger in pesticides here, and we now need to focus on ecotourism ideas to generate some funds,” said Jim Thomas, president of FOLA. “Our kickoff meeting was Dec. 30, and we’ve involved every town around here and the counties. We’re just going to put together a coalition to figure out what we can do to get people to use it.”
One of the primary draws FOLA has worked on is birdwatching, making use of the historic migratory bird flyway on the lake’s northern shore.
“Hundreds of thousands of birds come here every winter,” Thomas said. “They either stop over or stay here. Birdwatchers — a big part of ecotourism — they come here for that. That’s going to be a major thing, and we’ve already tried to make it more open for them to get in here.”
Even within birdwatching, there is an array of possibilities to explore.
“We’ve designed a drive-through trail, with all of the different cells that have different birds doing different things,” Thomas said. “When you think about 20,000 acres, that’s a lot of land, and so we’ve designed a trail that people can drive and stop at the different pods. That will open in January or February. It’s going to give us an access, and the trail has been good. We have a festival every year in Magnolia Park to raise interest, called the Birdapalooza, on Feb. 7. We get a lot of people for that festival. We do guided tours to watch birds and that sort of thing.”
In addition to expanded birdwatching, FOLA is working with local governments and environmental groups to build on established and former attractions around the lake, as well as propose new elements, such as a plethora of tours, classes for all ages, an acquisition of Hull Island and Crown Point and a rehab center for native species.
“Friends of Lake Apopka has promoted some things over the years,” Thomas said. “One of the things we’ve gotten at Magnolia Park is a hiking trail that goes all the way around the lake, and it comes to this side, and we have a trailhead now on the other side. You can hike or bike 18 miles. The trailhead was just opened, and it’s beautiful. Our goal is now to connect it with Ferndale Preserve (in Clermont), and then eventually come around and connect to the West Orange Trail.”
Orange County agreed to connect the West Orange Trail to Magnolia Park, as well, covering about three miles of gap, which could introduce more trail-goers to trails around Lake Apopka, Thomas said.
Thomas’s biggest personal goal is to get a deepwater boat ramp in Oakland, so that West Orange residents have an easier access point for fishing.
“One of the problems we have with fishing is that this (east) side of the lake is very shallow compared to the other side, and some boats can’t get out there,” Thomas said. “And the only public boats are at Magnolia Park and the city of Winter Garden. A boat of any size you can’t get out. It’s a real problem now — people like to fish, and we’re always getting a lot of people saying nobody’s using the lake. Well, nobody’s using the lake because they can’t get there on the available boat ramps.”
Thanks to Gourd Neck Springs in the southwest part of the lake, just northwest of Oakland, a flow to the lake provides a depth of 18 feet, a prime location for such a ramp.
“So we get the trails hooked up and a usable boat ramp here and the north shore, but we would like to see other things,” Thomas said. “We would like to see another nature center. We’d like to see even a bird-oriented hotel or something, and just all kinds of ideas that we want to promote and get everything going that we possibly can to bring back the economy of this area.”
That includes bringing back fishing, for which the lake was once famous.
“It’s going to be important to get the fishery back — that was the original fame of Apopka,” Thomas said. “I used to come here when I was 10 years old to fish in Lake Apopka. It’s been pretty amazing to remember how great it was and then see how terrible it was, but the whole lake is 31,000 acres. That’s a huge lake.”
Other attractions center on the Oakland Nature Preserve, which is used a lot for children’s programs in particular, such as environmental education and summer camps, Thomas said.
“The preserve was finally able to hire a part-time staff, and we’ve scheduled a lot of events and things like a partnership with the charter schools so all the charter school students come here to study science,” he said. “It’s built the reputation.
FOLA established the Oakland Nature Preserve in 1999 with a primary purchase of 95 acres.
“After we saw the lake was going to be restored, Friends of Lake Apopka needed a place to keep the public involved, because in advocacy you’ve got to have public access and public support,” Thomas said. “We said, ‘Let’s just build a small nature center somewhere and use it to promote the lake restoration and keep people updated.’”
Much of the land purchased for the nature preserve was frozen orange groves with nothing native, so volunteers started taking out orange trees and planting native trees, with restoration of land near the lake becoming as important as lake restoration, Thomas said.
“The Oakland Nature Preserve is an important part of the history of Lake Apopka,” he said. “It’s extremely unusual in that all of it was done by volunteers, with no government subsidy. We just had really good support from the community and volunteers. We wanted this thing and got it.”
The preserve has helped FOLA’s mission of keeping people in touch with Lake Apopka, with all of its programs focused on that or natural history of the area. Grants have helped, too, although local governments have not formally contributed money in such a way until last year, Thomas said.
“We just got our first grant from a local government: We got $15,000 a year from Orange County for the time being,” he said. “Everything else has been fundraising — that’s it. We did everything from bake sales to begging and whatever it takes, but we’ve gotten what we wanted.”
The combination of voluntary and financial support has had a measured effect on the pollution that made Lake Apopka nationally infamous as the most polluted body of water in Florida, however gradual or tough to notice.
“It wasn’t long until the thing was so green that the light couldn’t penetrate it to get to the bottom plants, so they died, and then the fish died,” Thomas said. “The one thing we have to keep making clear to people is that the magnitude of this pollution is greater than anybody’s ever tackled, trying to restore the whole thing. You just can’t expect fast action.”
Even so, the level of phosphorus in the lake has steadily diminished since FOLA formed in 1991.
“The real goal began with getting phosphorus out of the lake,” he said. “That’s what’s making it green. That’s come a long way. It’s still green, but it’s not as green as it once was, when we started. The chemistry graph shows the phosphorus steadily dropping. We’re getting there. It’s just hard for people to see, and that’s why we need publicity on it: People are still upset, because it still looks green.”
The phosphorus issue began in 1941, when 21,000 acres of marsh became vegetable muck farms.
“They built a dike and sealed it off from the lake and farmed it,” Thomas said. “One of the problems they had when they started farming was it’s all organic soil. In the summer, it would oxidize because of the heat. So they developed a process of flooding the marsh through the summer and then pumping it back in the lake with hundreds of thousands of pounds of phosphorus.”
This pollution worsened for 50 years, until FOLA began its mission 24 years ago.
“At that time, the lake was very polluted,” he said. “All the farms on the north shore were in function, and nothing was being done. They had passed some rules about funding some restoration, but there were no plans ever given, and so nothing ever happened. That’s when we just got really angry, and the thing that finally triggered us off was when we had chemical data published by the Legislature about what was happening there and had to be changed. We got a lot of people together in West Orange County, and we started Friends of Lake Apopka, with the whole purpose of getting that lake restored somehow.”
The timing of FOLA’s formation fortunately coincided with a set of new, young legislators who supported the group’s mission.
“We got funds for buying out all of the farms,” Thomas said. “We tried a number of things to save the farms and work with them. They just would have no part of it. So we bought them — $100 million — and started the whole process. There was a lot of bloodshed, but it came across. We’re still dealing with a huge piece of land. Our goal is to get eelgrass on the bottom of the lake, which provides a lot oxygen and supports fish.”
Although farmers’ phosphorus is a diminishing problem, a new challenge faces Lake Apopka.
“One of the biggest problems we have here is a lack of water … because the drainage basin that drains into the lake when it rains is so tiny,” Thomas said. “The lake is so big, and the evaporation rate in the summer is so fast, that it takes a long time. After all of the rain we’ve had, we’re a foot below the minimum height. We used to have lots of hurricanes in this area, and those are the only times we got it filled up. We can’t pump it from anywhere. We have to depend entirely on rainfall, so that slows down the restoration a great deal.”
LAKE APOPKA TIMELINE
For years, Thomas has been updating FOLA’s Lake Apopka timeline.
“It starts with the early history, and we have done a lot of study on the archeological,” Thomas said. “When we bought this place, one of the things we didn’t realize was it’s a very significant archeological site. So we’ve done a lot of research in archeology to show what went on before we got here. We had the Timucuan Indians since 10,000 B.C., and then in the 1500s they died out, probably because of diseases coming from the Spanish, and then the Seminoles took over.”
The first settlers of the lake arrived around the 1840s, settling Oakland around 1840, before Winter Garden or Orlando, Thomas said.
“There were six tribes of Seminoles around the lake,” he said. “We have tons of archeological finds. We started out with a mission to help understand the restoration of Lake Apopka, but then we had to add in there to study and teach cultural history, as well as natural history.”
10,000 B.C. to A.D. 1500s: Native tribes thrive around Lake Apopka.
1880: Construction begins on the Apopka-Beauclair Canal by Apopka Canal Co., creating a waterway for navigation and agriculture.
1883: Levels drop 3 feet and expose sediment surfaces of marshes. Small farms spring up around the lake.
1893: Delta Canal Company completes 12 miles of canal, connecting Lake Apopka to lakes Beauclair, Dora, Eustis and Griffin, as well as the Ocklawaha River. This lowered Lake Apopka’s surface by a meter, exposing most sawgrass marsh on the north shore.
1942: Farms begin discharging into the lake.
1948: A hyacinth eradication program using chemicals begins. Winter Garden Citrus Products produces citrus concentrate, with effluent discharged into the lake. Enormous game fish population increases are documented through 1955.
1950: Winter Garden’s sewage treatment plant grows, discharging 1 million gallons of effluent into Lake Apopka each day. Game fish comprise 60% of the fish population.
1952: A lake stabilization program begins, including regulating lake levels. Trash fish are poisoned; 30 million pounds die in the lake. The game fish begin to deteriorate.
1962: Fish kills become widespread.
1963: Farmers spend more than $1 million on pesticide programs.
1964: Winter Garden’s sewage treatment plant serves 5,000. Effluent enters a mile-long ditch, channelized Lulu Creek, which serves the Winter Garden Citrus Products plant.
1967: The Lake Apopka Technical Committee is established to study and coordinate restoration plans. A governor’s aide says the lake is restorable within four years.
1969: Winter Garden Citrus Products adds a treatment process, reducing strength of effluent discharged to Lake Apopka.
1972: An outbreak of bacterial disease kills thousands of fish and many birds, alligators, snakes and turtles, garnering national attention. The state reveals a $2.3 million restoration plan, including a 50% drawdown, not funded.
1977: Peat mining begins on the southwestern shore, with effluent and stormwater collected in a man-made lake connected to Lake Apopka. University of Florida researchers say the lake is “not getting any dirtier” after deteriorating a half-century.
1978: A $14 million restoration plan is proposed, including drawdown. A public hearing of 100 begins the Environmental Impact Statement process.
1979: Restoration plans rise to $20 million. Citrus growers object from possible freeze damage. Another restoration plan, worth $2 million, proposes dredging the lake to make an island and north-south causeway across the lake, with an airport on the island. The final Environmental Impact Statement is complete.
1980: Winter Garden finishes its percolation/evaporation system for sewage, removing most effluent from the lake.
1981: Massive fish kills occur. A revised restoration plan includes a $3 million partial drawdown.
1985: Passage of the Lake Apopka Restoration Act of 1985 establishes a council and advisory committee with a $2.265 million budget. To stop farm discharges, St. Johns River Water Management District issues Intent to Deny and requests cease and desist orders and criminal charges.
1987: Surface Water Improvement and Management Act passes the Florida Legislature, naming Lake Apopka among seven restoration priorities.
1991: FOLA organizes.
1996: The Lake Apopka Restoration Act of 1996 sets phosphorus criteria for the lake, allowing SJRWMD to set phosphorus limits and receive $20 million to buy north-shore farms.
1997: A full-scale marsh flow-way is approved and initiated with $35 million. The Legislature approves $45 million to buy muck farms.
1998: Almost 15,000 acres of muck farms are bought for $100 million, via funds from Florida and 25% from the U.S. Federal Wetlands Reserve Program. Farming and pesticides end in June.
1999: More than 175 bird species migrate to the area, many suddenly dying. Accumulation of pesticide is suspected. Restoration is delayed for scientific investigations. Oakland Nature Preserve is established with an initial purchase of 95 acres.
2008: Wetland restoration occurs by flooding 1,200 acres of former ZDWCD farms.
2009: The marsh flow-way removes 62 million pounds of suspended solids and 37,300 pounds of phosphorus from November 2003 to December 2009.
2010: Lake phosphorus concentrations average 76 parts per billion, near the target of 55.
2011: The north shore hosts 346 bird species, more than anywhere in Florida. Magnolia Park has an August trailhead ribbon-cutting for 18 miles of North Shore Restoration Area activity, once restoration finishes.