OAKLAND — Dozens crammed the Oakland Nature Preserve June 20 for updates on Lake Apopka’s health, provided by Jim Peterson, field program supervisor for the Apopka Field Station of the St. Johns River Water Management District.
Officials monitoring Lake Apopka have seen bobcats and gators among growing returns of species around the lake, especially those with wings.
“The birding is just phenomenal,” Peterson said.
Lake Apopka’s north shore has more observed bird species than almost anywhere in Florida, with more than 360 species flocking to what once were muck farms polluting the lake.
The gathering of birds spurred development of roughly 17 miles of trails that opened May 1 for driving, as well as Birdapalooza, the cornerstone of ecotourism and recreation around the lake that has drawn about 3,800. The next Birdapalooza will be Feb. 6, 2016, at Magnolia Park, where the trail begins.
Fishing, once a lake hallmark, is in revitalization, with bass among species on the rise. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials plan to add fish within a decade, and boat ramp plans for Montverde and the north shore are underway, with Winter Garden an aim if the lake deepens, Peterson said.
Jim Thomas, president of Friends of Lake Apopka and member of Oakland Nature Preserve’s Board of Directors, listed a west-shore boat ramp and cooperation with the West Orange Trail among basin ecotourism efforts.
“We’re also seeing new projects being proposed,” Thomas said. “We know if we want to speed this up we still need other things. There’s a lot going on. We just received a manuscript from Japan — a guy wants to come here and show what he’s done to clean the water there.”
Other proposals include solar panels for lake electrical needs and experimental dredging scheduled for winter.
Leaders stressed 2015 rebranding activity and enhanced property values as keys to share in changing public perception. They also announced boat tours beginning Oct. 24 at the Oakland Heritage Festival.
Perhaps paramount of species returning to Lake Apopka is eelgrass, with continuing re-emergence along the edges of the lake, Peterson said. He showed how the south shore in Oakland and Winter Garden had high eelgrass, with plants expanding from almost nothing in the 1990s to more than 35 acres today. Submersed plants will continue to grow with normal rainfall, Peterson said.
Flourishing eelgrass usually shows a dissipation of phosphorous pollution, as the two tend to have an inverse relationship in Lake Apopka, once infamous for toxic phosphorus levels late in the 20th century. This resulted in eutrophication and algal blooms.
Treatment of lake phosphorus has been a long process based on cost-effective methodologies and source mitigation challenges, Peterson said.
Water at the north shore has gone through a series of marshy cells to filter phosphorus from the lake, and in two decades, this and other restoration efforts have shown measurable results, Peterson said.
“We’re also harvesting gizzard shad,” Peterson said. “Right now, they harvest about 1 million pounds each year of gizzard shad — pretty amazing — and the program started in 1993, so over 20 million pounds of shad have been harvested. Those shad have phosphorous in their bodies, so (removing them) gets rid of phosphorus that way, but they also (recycle) phosphorus into the lake, so getting those fish out of the lake stopped some of the recycling of phosphorus.”
The size and number of gizzard shad — a “garbage fish” indicating poor lake health in phosphorous levels — have declined steadily, Peterson said, another sign of decreased phosphorous levels, among others.
District officials have been planting hundreds of thousands of native plants to help the lake, such as lilies, he said.
“The idea is to increase the amount for plants for habitat and nutrients in the lake,” Peterson said. “The lake plant life was once in submersed plants, and then it shifted to phytoplankton. We want to shift that state of the lake back to these submersed plants. By getting those plants out there and increasing the transparency of the water, we hope to shift the lake.”
Officials also kill bad plants, especially Hydrilla, with quarterly herbicide uses, which could be large this year, Peterson said.
Other issues include methane and the water level, which is about a foot lower than the minimum recommended level of 66 feet, 6 inches, Peterson said.