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Sixty years ago Lake Apopka was a world class bass fishery. Fishing camps dotted the shore of the spring-fed central Florida lake in Orange and Lake Counties, and anglers came from all over to fish the clean clear water. The water was so clear it was said a fisherman could look down and pick out the fish he wanted to catch. Significant man-made interventions, however, caused the degradation of Lake Apopka's water, and the fishing camps closed. Today, thanks to the efforts of the St. Johns River Water District Management and several citizen groups including the Friends of Lake Apopka (FOLA), Lake Apopka is a conservation success story in the making.
Lake Apopka is the fourth largest lake in Florida, but it used to be the second largest. The original settlers around the lake were the Timucuans. There is evidence that they inhabited the area on the northern shore as early as 10,000 BC, but diseases brought by European settlers and the Seminole Wars decimated the native people. By the mid 1800's the southern shore of Lake Apopka was being farmed by European settlers. The area grew following the Civil War, and the land around Lake Apopka was good for raising produce.
Although the lake was very large, it didn't have a navigable outlet so it couldn't be used for transportation. The Apopka-Beauclair Canal was completed in 1888, providing a navigable waterway to move goods and connecting Lake Apopka to Lake Beauclair and Lake Dora. From Lake Dora water flows through Lake Eustis and Lake Griffin and onto the Ocklawaha River ending at the St. Johns River. As a result, Lake Apopka is considered the headwaters of the Harris Chain of Lakes and the Ocklawaha River.
Although the Apopka-Beauclair Canal lowered the water level on Lake Apopka by over three feet, it didn't adversely affect the lake's water quality. By 1940 anglers were traveling from all over to catch the lake's trophy sized bass, and there were 29 fishing camps around the lake. In 1941, however, everything changed with the construction of a levee along the north shore of the lake. The levee drained 20,000 acres of Lake Apopka for agriculture and to aid the war effort. The resulting farms produced up to three crops a year, but they also inundated the lake with phosphorus and pesticides. Added municipal waste from nearby Winter Garden and pulp from the citrus processing plants further degraded the lake. By 1962 massive fish kills occurred regularly, and Lake Apopka's clear water was turning pea green.
The downward spiral continued until the late 1980's. By then Lake Apopka was hypereutrophic (excessive nutrients with low transparency) and called a "dead lake" by some. The Friends of Lake Apopka mounted a campaign to improve the lake's water quality, and in 1985 the Lake Apopka Restoration Act started the slow turnaround. The St. Johns River Water Management District and the USDA bought back almost all the drained farmland. The land was flooded and the birds returned by the thousands. Unfortunately, pesticide residue in the fish they ate killed almost a thousand white pelicans, wood storks and great blue herons, and the land was drained again.
The St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) built a "marsh flow-way" system to filter Lake Apopka's water. The SJRWMD also harvested more than 15 million pounds of gizzard shad, removing even more phosphorus from the lake. As a result, water clarity in Lake Apopka has risen significantly as phosphorus levels have dropped. The submerged native plant beds are coming back and so are the fish. Anglers might not pull trophy bass out of Lake Apopka, but there are growing populations of black crappie, speckled perch, bluegill, and sunshine bass. There is also public boat access to the lake.
As the water quality in Lake Apopka improves so do the recreation opportunities, and residential development is slowly on the rise. Lake Apopka is primarily in Orange County, but part of the lake is also in Lake County. There is a wildlife preserve in each county. Ferndale Preserve in Lake County is on the western shore of the lake. There are three trails including a 2.9 mile long equestrian trail, a 1.6 mile long unpaved multi-use trail, and a 2.5 mile long nature trail. The preserve is on land that was once one of the many orange groves that surrounded Lake Apopka. As many as 174 species of birds have been documented in the preserve. Visitors may see American alligators, bobcats, river otters, and even gopher tortoise. There are ranger-led nature hikes and bird and butterfly surveys.
The Oakland Nature Preserve is in the town of Oakland on the southern shore of Lake Apopka. The 120-acre Orange County preserve has trails with a 3,000 foot boardwalk through the native wetlands. Friends of Lake Apopka (FOLA) is instrumental in maintaining the preserve, and along with lake communities, FOLA is working to develop a 57 mile long paved trail around the lake. In addition to the Lake Apopka Loop Trail, there are almost six miles of multi-use and equestrian trails in the Lake Apopka Restoration Area. For automobiles and motorcycles, the Green Mountain Scenic Byway runs through beautiful oak groves. The Byway is also popular with runners and cyclists.
The city of Apopka is known as the "Indoor Foliage Capital of the World" or "Fern City". The city was named for a Seminole village called Ahapopka on the shore of Lake Apopka. Apopka was incorporated in 1882, and by 1912 ferns were the main industry. Communities around Lake Apopka offer vacation rentals and a wide range of amenities. Orlando with Disney and its other attractions is just 20 minutes from the lake.
Lake Apopka's water quality and popularity are both on the rise. Its proximity to Orlando and all attractions are sure to make it a popular vacation destination. With careful stewardship and conservation efforts over time, Lake Apopka should be restored to its former glory.
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