How Lake Apopka went from Florida's most polluted lake to the most promising

Wildlife return to fourth-largest lake in Florida

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – When Joe Dunn, acting president of the advocacy group Friends of Lake Apopka, built his home on the south end of Lake Apopka three years ago, the water did not look good.

"People who'd lived here for their entire lives stopped coming to the lake to fish, swim and boat because it had turned pea green," Dunn said.

Al Capone and Clark Gable were some of the famous fisherman drawn to Lake Apopka for its plentiful bass, according to Friends of Lake Apopka. Fish camps and hotels popped up to accommodate fisherman from all over the world.

Lake Apopka, once the bass-fishing capital of the Eastern United States, according to Dunn, had turned into a dead body of water.

Friends of Lake Apopka and the St. John's River Water Management District (SJRWMD) blame the farms.

In the early 1900s, farmers cleared 20,000 acres of wetlands, said lead scientist Dr. Dean Dobberfuhl.

"Perfectly flat, perfectly barren dirt," Dobberfuhl said. "Very daunting to go from that to functioning wetlands."

Farmers built levees to keep the lake water from flooding their farms but pumped in water for irrigation.

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They then pumped the phosphorus-filled, pesticide-packed wastewater back into Lake Apopka.

Dunn said in the 1970s, the detrimental effects became obvious.

The phosphorus, in particular, spawned algae blooms that covered the surface. Everything below died.

"The farms were never going to self-police, so getting that fertilizer and pesticide flow to stop was absolutely pivotal to the recovery, and that's exactly when the lake started to recover," Dunn said.

In 1998, the state of Florida completed the purchase of all farmland along Lake Apopka.

[READ: What Florida is doing to improve the state's dirty water situation]

"The pivot point was buying the farms," Dunn said.

That's when the restoration began that still continues today.

SJRWMD began replanting the farmland with native vegetation and removing invasive plants.

Biologists began removing bottom-feeding gizzard shad fish and replaced them with 1.5 million bass. Gizzard shad eat the phosphorus so removing the shad also removes the phosphorus, Dobberfuhl said.

Crews also cut channels, called "flow-ways," into the man-made levees to allow the lake water to flow freely into the marshy areas.

The flow-ways, now filled with native cleansing plants, act as marine kidneys, Dobberfuhl said, filtering the water.

Massive pumps then pump out the cleansed water back over the levees and into the lake.

"It's working great," Dobberfuhl said. "This facility, this wetlands facility, has removed millions and millions of pounds of sediment, one of the things we're trying to get out of the lake, and thousands of pounds of phosphorus."

Dunn said the water around his dock is less green these days.

"I've watched the water quality improve, I've watched the vegetation improve. The eel grass around our dock is double or triple from when we first moved there," Dunn said. "You don't pollute a lake for 50 or 60 years and then get well in 20. So we're very glad of the progress, we're hopeful."

[RELATED: These are the local groups fighting to clean up Florida's waterways]

Friends of Lake Apopka said the north shore of Lake Apopka now has the greatest diversity of bird species in inland North America, according to the Audubon Society.

The 11-mile Wildlife Drive along the northern end of Lake Apopka now regularly showcases bobcats, bald eagles, great blue herons, otters and alligators, all because of the restoration.

Dunn said the restoration effort is leaving a legacy for children to come, including his.

"It's my legacy to my son and daughter, that house, and I want this lake to be someplace they can come and live when my wife and I are no longer there," Dunn said.


About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.