FORECAST: For the love of the lake

Winter Garden is partnering with Friends of Lake Apopka and the St. Johns River Water Management District to develop a plan to dredge Lake Apopka near the Newton Park boat ramp.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Whitehouse
Photo courtesy of Daniel Whitehouse
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The demise of Lake Apopka dates all the way back to 1893, when the destruction was foreshadowed by the construction of the Apopka-Beauclair Canal. The new canal lowered the 50,000-acre lake by 3 feet, exposing the shallow northern portion of the lake.

In 1941, farmers constructed a levee across Lake Apopka to drain the top 20,000 acres, creating muck farms to grow vegetables during World War II. 

Fifty years of nutrients from the farms, wastewater from nearby towns and byproducts from citrus processors created repeated algal blooms and turned the lake pea green, killing all native aquatic vegetation.

Long considered the largemouth bass capital of the eastern United States, Lake Apopka went from an angler’s paradise to Florida’s most polluted lake.

In the last 25 years, progress has been made, largely thanks to efforts from Friends of Lake Apopka and the St. Johns River Water Management District, and the restoration of Florida’s fourth largest lake is continuing.

The latest project? Develop a plan to design and permit channel dredging and near-shore habitat dredging in the vicinity of the Newton Park boat ramp. 

“The Newton Park dredging project would be another in a long list of efforts that are contributing to the improvements we’ve already seen,” SJRWMD Media Outreach Manager Ashley Evitt said. “The design effort is a necessary step toward implementing the project. The restoration of Lake Apopka has been a focus of the district’s efforts for many years. While many successes have been achieved to date, the restoration of the lake will require the continued collaboration of state, regional and local partners.”


In 2016, the Florida Legislature granted SJRWMD $5 million per year for the restoration of Lake Apopka. One of the initiatives the district sought out with the money was to conduct an engineering study of what it would take to dredge Newton Park. 

Just as soon as the initiative began, the money dried up, because the Legislature decided to spend the money elsewhere. The project went dormant. 

In early 2022, Joe Dunn, FOLA immediate past president, and other FOLA members approached the district and asked what it would take to resurrect the study. The district said if the city of Winter Garden was willing to do a collaboration, the project could move forward. 

FOLA met with former City Manager Mike Bollhoefer and current City Manager Jon Williams, who both agreed the city would put up $100,000 for the project, while the district contributed $200,000 through a legislative appropriation focused on Lake Apopka water quality improvement, meeting the $300,000 needed to finish the study. 

A draft Request for Proposal was created with review from the involved parties. The focus of the project is to conduct an engineering evaluation of what it would take to dredge the water near Newton Park, which is separate from the actual dredging, with the planning being conducted in a phased approach. 

The district will be the lead agency hiring and managing an engineering firm to complete the final design and permitting of the project. 

The engineering firm selected will study the plans with design and permitting anticipated to require 24 months before coming back and giving recommendations for dredging and best practices to the district and city. 

The dredging timeline will depend on funding; about $5 million is needed for completion. The district has grants through the state that can be utilized to help pay for the project up to 25%. Other opportunities for funding could be entities such as Orange County or the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection.

Dunn said part of FOLA’s mission will be to help the city secure funding. 

However, because the project still is in its planning stages, Dunn said funding is not currently being discussed. 

“With any engineering study and with any science, there are unknown unknowns,” he explained. “You just don’t know what might come up. This is a really critical phase.”


According to the SJRWMD, placement of dredge material can be on district-owned Lake Apopka north shore property or potentially dewatered and used for an alternative beneficial use. 

“The proposed dredging will also provide a Lake Apopka water quality benefit by removing unconsolidated floc easily re-suspended by wave energy,” Evitt said. “Dredging the channel provides a benefit by removing sediment for boat navigation.”

Dunn agreed, saying eliminating the muck would allow native vegetation to proliferate. 

“The muck is the dead vegetation covering the sandy bottom,” he said. “Emergent vegetation that sits on the surface like lily pads and submerged aquatic vegetation like eelgrass don’t like the muck. They can grow in it but prefer a cleaner sand base.”

In terms of navigation, Dunn thinks a majority of anglers prefer not to put their boats in at the dock because of the large amounts of muck that enter the motor. 

“There are a lot of reasons for it from an ecological standpoint,” he said. “To decrease the turbidity of the water. That muck gets in the water column and the lake doesn’t get through. Because it’s a large shallow lake, the wind stirs up the muck, so getting the muck out will increase oxygen, light, native vegetation and make it easier to put a boat in.”

Assistant City Manager Steve Pash said the city decided to contribute financially toward the design to improve the community.

“Dredging the area in front of our dock will be beneficial to our citizens, as well as those that are putting boats in at that location,” Pash said.

Daniel Whitehouse, FOLA member and avid lake user, said the fishing has improved dramatically over the last few years and is continuing to improve. Howver, it still can be better.

“We need more native submerged vegetation in the lake to help aid not only the lake health but also the game fish and the overall natural habitat,” Whitehouse said. “The challenges the lake is facing are visible but also non-visible. When the lake levels are low, anyone who is putting a boat in at the ramps around the lake will quite easily notice the muck aspect. You start idling your boat out, and the water gets churned up, and you get that brown muck color. You can also notice the clarity of the lake and the water color. In some lakes, you can see 15 or 20 feet down clear as day. In some areas of Lake Apopka it’s hard to see 6, 8, even 12 inches down because of the turbidity. The more muck we get out of the lake, the more it will help with that.” 

However, Dunn said there are also a lot of mechanical and engineering challenges that go along with the process, and dredging is actually the easier portion. 

“You’re going to take a bunch of phosphorus-laden muck and stir it up and get phosphorus back in the water, so you need to understand what’s going to happen and what dynamic is going to occur in terms of the phosphorus levels,” he said. “So once the muck comes up, what do you do with it? That is a big part of the engineering study. One of the reasons we wanted to do the study is so they had scientific and engineering facts instead of emotion, because one of the solutions is to have just a bunch of dump trucks pull up to Newton Park, load it up, drive it away and dump it somewhere.”

Dunn said he thinks another option would be to utilize a series of barges with pumps to put the muck on the north shore, which is generally the preferred solution. The distance from the park to the northeastern corner of the lake is about 6 miles. 

“Every decade that they farmed on the north shore, the ground dropped a foot, so that 20,000 acres on the north shore that used to be farms is 5 feet lower than the lake,” he said. “You have lots of room to take muck and put it on the north shore, but you’ve got to get it up there.”

However, the pumping raises yet another series of challenges. 

With the continuous running of pipes and pumps with motors for an undetermined time, how can the project impact the least amount of citizens?

“Dredging by itself won’t ‘fix’ the lake, but it’s just another way we can help the lake recover,” Whitehouse said. “The current plan that the city is working on is minimal in the grand scheme of things — the amount of muck they’re going to dredge for the purpose of navigation. If we were ever to get to the scale where there was a project to remove all of the muck on the bottom then that becomes a much larger concern of where all of that muck would go.”


Lake Apopka is the headwaters of the Ocklawaha Chain of Lakes, located in northwest Orange and southeast Lake counties and is fed by a natural spring, rainfall and stormwater runoff. 

Water from Lake Apopka flows through the Apopka-Beauclair Canal and into lakes Beauclair and Dora. From Lake Dora, water flows into Lake Eustis, then into Lake Griffin and then northward into the Ocklawaha River, which flows into the St. Johns River.

Although there was outrage and many calls for action in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, little was done to combat the lake’s declining health. 

Muck farmers could generate three crops a year rather than their traditional one crop per year, leading productivity to an enormous nutrient loading in the remaining 30,000 acres of the lake. 

Biologist Jim Thomas in 1991 founded FOLA with the sole mission of advocating for the restoration of Lake Apopka.

In 1998, the state Legislature spent $100 million to purchase the muck farms, ending the primary source of nutrient loading into the lake. SJRWMD then spent the next 25 years restoring the muck farms to natural wetlands. 

At its worst, Lake Apopka was almost 300 parts-per-billion of phosphorus as a key barometer of the lake’s health used by biologists. Today, the phosphorus level is down to 80 ppb. The target is 55 ppb.

Key initiatives that drove 25 years of SJRWMD restoration efforts included: Converting 20,000 acres of muck farms into natural wetlands, creating a 760-acre Marsh Flow Way naturally filtering 40% of the lake’s volume water every year, removing a million pounds of gizzard shad from the lake each year and increasing native submerged aquatic vegetation. 

As the lake recovered, ecotourism flourished. Birdwatchers flock to the new wetlands on the north shore, where 270 species of birds congregate in the winter during migration. The 11-mile Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive opened in 2015 and attracts almost 200,000 visitors per year. Fishing efforts on Lake Apopka have more than doubled in the past few years. 

Looking ahead, bicycle trails around the lake will be connected to create a safe 42-mile cycling route around Lake Apopka in 2024. 

Dunn said his passion for the lake is fueled by his two grandchildren. 

“That lake will not be completely restored in my lifetime, but I want that lake completely restored in their lifetime,” he said. “The lake is my backyard, so it hits close to home with the way I care for it. Jim Thomas was such an inspiration and an incredible man. I want his legacy to continue to live.”



Annabelle Sikes

News Editor Annabelle Sikes was born in Boca Raton and moved to Orlando in 2018 to attend the University of Central Florida. She graduated from UCF in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in sociology. Her past journalism experiences include serving as a web producer at the Orlando Sentinel, a reporter at The Community Paper, managing editor for NSM Today, digital manager at Centric Magazine and as an intern for the Orlando Weekly.

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