ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — What was once considered Florida’s most polluted lake is making strides in its road to recovery. Agricultural discharge caused Lake Apopka to lose its submerged aquatic vegetation for more than 50 years, but thanks to efforts from the St. Johns River Water Management District, aquatic plants are growing once again. It’s a sign that water quality is improving and that restoration efforts are working.

What You Need To Know

  • Agricultural discharge led to a continuous algal bloom in Lake Apopka

  • The St. Johns River Water Management District has spent decades restoring the lake

  • The District’s water quality projects have reduced phosphorus levels and increased water clarity

  • Now that water quality has improved, native aquatic plants can grow in the lake again after being gone for more than 50 years

Lake Apopka was once a main attraction in Central Florida. 

“There were over 20 fish camps around the lake,” Jim Peterson with the St. Johns River Water Management District said. “They had lodging, they rented boats, they sold bait, they had entertainment. It was a place to come visit.”

In the early 20th century, Lake Apopka was considered the most reliable bass-fishing lake in the South — but by the 1940s, everything changed. Food shortage concerns during World War II caused 20,000 acres of the lake’s North Shore to be drained and used for agricultural production.

“That area became completely under cultivation,” Peterson said. “They did a great job of growing vegetables mostly and crops, but it added a lot of pollution to Lake Apopka.”

Drainage from the farms increased the lake’s phosphorus levels and led to a continuous algal bloom. Due to the algae, sunlight couldn’t reach the bottom of the lake, which caused native submerged aquatic vegetation to die off and the bass population to decline. At one point, Lake Apopka was considered Florida’s most polluted lake.

“It would just look so green and you could only look a few inches into the water column,” Peterson said.

Peterson is the Strategic Planning Basin coordinator for the Ocklawaha River, which is headquartered in Lake Apopka. 

“I’ve worked on Lake Apopka restoration since 1994,” Peterson said.

Peterson has seen the lake at its worst and has been determined to make it better. Even outside of work, he spends his time educating others about the lake.

“One of my hobby jobs is leading environmental eco tours on kayaks,” he said.

Over the decades, Peterson and the district have worked to remove phosphorus from the lake and improve water quality. Per district data, measurements from 2020 to the present show that phosphorus levels in the lake have declined by 69% compared to averages from 1989 to 1994. Meanwhile, water transparency has increased by 97%, which has led to clearer water. Now that water quality has improved, submerged aquatic vegetation can finally grow in the lake again.  

“We’ve reduced the phosphorus, the water clarity’s improved, and that allows those plants to grow,” Peterson said.

In one of their current water quality projects, the district is planting Vallisneria americana, or eelgrass, throughout the lake. It used to be one of the dominant types of submerged aquatic vegetation and the current restoration project will help it become reestablished. Jodi Slater, an environmental scientist IV, said the district will plant more than 40 acres of eelgrass by the end of the year. 

“We want to give it everything that we can to give it a leg up, to help it come back and help it heal itself,” Slater said.

During current planting, crews dropped 15,000 eelgrass plants into the water. Not only are the plants growing, but they are spreading on their own, too. Further up the lake, Peterson points out a previous planting spot where vegetation is expanding and should reach nearly 1,000 acres. 

“Now, they’ve all spread in this canal,” Peterson said. “They’re probably enjoying this clear water, but also the entire lake is clear enough that these plants can grow now.”

For Peterson, it is a huge milestone. It’s proof that restoration efforts are working and that nature is responding. 

“I think it’s rewarding to see that our hard work is paying off but also just for the habitat, for all the wild animals out here,” he said. “I love to come out and see the birds and the wildlife utilizing this lake.”

Lake Apopka spent more than five decades being polluted and it will take time for it to fully be restored — but people like Jim are doing all they can to help it heal. 

To learn more about the lake or the district’s current restoration projects, you can visit their website

Reagan Ryan is a 2023 — 2025 Report for America Corps Member, covering the environment and climate across Central Florida for Spectrum News 13. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.