Historians do not agree as to when the first human settlers arrived in the Lake Apopka area. Aboriginal culture, especially on the northeast shore of the lake has been documented occurring continuously from at least 10,000 B.C. to about 400 A.D. These unnamed tribes were undoubtedly ancestors to the natives thriving in the area when the Spanish arrived. The Spanish called them Timucuans. Historic outfall from the lake was primarily through Double Run Swamp on the west side of the lake, to Lake Harris. By the mid 1800's, white settlers began farming the south shores.
Lake Apopka has experienced dramatic changes in its environmental health over the past century. A once plentiful and productive lake, the second largest lake in Florida, was a renowned fishing paradise where anglers from all over the world came hoping to land a trophy bass. The clear, pristine lake was home to 29 fish camps on its 40 miles of shoreline.
This changed, starting in 1941, with the establishment of 20,000 acres of vegetable muck farms. The filtering marshes on the north shores were drained to make room for the farms. Massive quantities of nutrients were pumped into the lake from the farms, municipal sewage, and effluent from citrus processing. The high nutrient loading encouraged widespread algae blooms, blocking sunlight and choking productive submerged plants and causing a decline in game fish populations. Clean up measures failed. Eventually, only undesirable fish feeding on the algae could survive in these extreme conditions.
The fish camps all closed and the “green” lake became known as the most polluted large lake in Florida. This condition has endured for more than 40 years. In 1991, The Friends of Lake Apopka (FOLA) organized, advocating the restoration of the lake. This broad based citizens group appealed to agricultural interests to change their farming practices, and sought public support to restore the lake. After years of work FOLA endorsed the Lake Apopka Restoration Act of 1996 in the Florida Legislature. This led to the $100 million public purchase of the muck farms to stop the nutrient pollution flow. St. Johns River Water Management District is the Florida public agency charged with the responsibility of purchasing the farms and restoring the lake.
The restoration of the lake has began, although it is anticipated to be a slow, complicated process. At the end of the decade of the 1990’s, measurement of water quality variables indicate the condition of the lake improved more than 30%. However, the unprecedented scale and complexity of the restoration will be challenges for years to come. Cumulative pesticide residues, unexplained bird fatalities, involvement of the Federal Government and urban development, are all part of the scientific, political and economic landscape of restoration.
FOLA continues actively advocating a healthy lake, supporting efforts for recreational trails and access to the lake, development guidelines to control pollution from development, and a rule to decrease future phosphorous discharge to the lake. All citizens must continue to monitor and be informed about the progress of the restoration
1880 Construction of the Apopka - Beauclair Canal started by Apopka Canal Company to create a waterway for navigation and agricultural use.
1883 Lake levels drop three feet and expose sediment surface of marshes. Small farms spring up around lake.
1885 Land around the lake was going for the high price of 25¢ per acre because people expected future demands for property in the area.
1893 Delta Canal Company successfully completes 12 miles of canal connecting Lake Apopka through Lakes Beauclair, Dora, Eustis, and Griffin to the Ocklawaha River. This lowered the water surface of Lake Apopka by approximately 1 meter, exposing the sediment surface of most of the sawgrass marsh on the north shore.
1894 Category I hurricane passes over lake.
1895 Disastrous freezes kill more than half of the citrus trees in Orange County.
1910 Due to crop failures because of difficulty in water table management and cold waves, canal becomes filled with vegetation and lake stage returns, more or less, to its normal levels.
1915 Zellwood Produce Company improves the canal to reduce water table fluctuations. Farmers on the south shore protest, fearing water supply shortages, decreased cold protection and threatened navigation.
1922 Winter Garden Pollution Control Facility (sewage treatment plant) constructed, serving a population of between 1,500 and 3,250. Effluent enters Lake Apopka. Discharges from citrus packing process begins entering the lake.
1926 Severe hurricane, entire north shore under 6 to 8 feet of water.
1940 Dense growths of aquatic weeds appear.
1941 Zellwood Drainage and Water Control District (ZDWCD) created by legislature.
Levee constructed by ZDWCD between north marsh lands and lake.
Lake level rises two feet above farm lands.
1942 Farms begin discharging into the lake.
1945 Category II hurricane passes over the lake.
Lake water clear with dense growth of Illinois pondweed covering much of the lake bottom.
1946 Beginning die-off of submerged vegetation documented.
1947 Half the marsh area is in row crops and the rest being prepared for farming.
Game fish make up 35% of fish populations, shad 20% by weight.
First algae bloom in lake documented.
Hurricane destroys large amounts of eel grass on bottom of the lake.
Intense algal growth first described.
Rooted aquatic vegetation begins to decline.
1948 Hyacinth eradication program using chemicals begins.
Winter Garden Citrus Products now producing citrus concentrate, effluent discharged to Lake Apopka.
Enormous increases in the game fish populations documented to 1955.
1949 Illinois pondweed no longer in the lake. Algal blooms increasingly dominant over rooted plants.
1950 Control structure placed in Apopka-Beauclair Canal.
Winter Garden sewage treatment plant enlarged, effluent (one million gallons per day) discharged to Lake Apopka.
Game fish make up 60% of fish population.
1952 Lake stabilization program begins, lake levels regulated.
Trash fish poisoned, 30 million pounds died in lake,
Quality and quantity of game fish fishery begins to deteriorate.
1956 Present lock and dam structure built, canal deepened.
21 Fish Camps operating on the lake.
1957 Gizzard Shad make up 82% of fish population, 18% are game fish.
Hyacinth eradication programs accelerated, dead plants decay in lake.
1962 Fish kills becoming widespread.
1963 More than $1 million spent by farms on pesticide programs.
1964 Winter Garden sewer treatment plant now serving a population of 5,000, effluent to Lake Apopka. Effluent enters mile long ditch (channelized Lulu Creek) which also serves Winter Garden Citrus Products plant.
Combined effluent provides second largest amount of nutrients from human activities.
1965 Almost all former marsh and on the north side of the lake now being farmed, most producing three crops annually.
Commercial catfish harvesting stopped because DDT concentration in fish exceeded allowable limits.
Nine fish camps operating on the lake.
1966 Haul seine survey of Lake Apopka funded by Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and Orange
County Conservation Fund. Results: Gizzard Shad and Gar fish make up most of fish population (Jumps
from 2% in 1964 to 48% in 1966).
State threatens citrus plant with legal action over discharges to Lake Apopka.
Radio station WTLN schedules weekly program on Lake Apopka problems.
Large group of citizens meet in Apopka to organize to stop pollution, present petition to stop pollution of
Lake Apopka, signed by 5,000 people (Central Florida Anti-Pollution Association, Inc.).
Orange County and Lake County share cost of biochemical study of Lake Apopka ($5,000).
Orlando Sailing Boat Club holds sailing regatta on Lake Apopka , draws 100 boats.
1967 Lake Apopka Technical Committee established to study and coordinate restoration plans.
Governor’s aide says Lake Apopka is restorable in four years.
1968 Lake Apopka Technical Committee needs funds for engineering studies.
Federal grant of $12,000 obtained for cleanup, farmers will also contribute.
Plans for fishmeal plants using Apopka roughfish studied.
1969 Winter Garden Citrus Products adds treatment process, reduces strength of effluent discharged to Lake Apopka.
1970 State and Federal restoration efforts start.
1971 Test draw down completed, lake lowered 4 feet. Cost for total drawdown estimated at $1.5 million. Total of $96,075 spent to date on the project.
1972 Outbreak of bacterial disease kills thousands of fish, and many birds, alligators, snakes and turtles, gets nationwide attention.
State reveals $2.3 million restoration plan includes 50% drawdown (not funded).
1973 Bass production failing.
1975 Muck farmers propose to dike off 500 acres of lake for holding ponds.
1976 Four fish camps operating on the lake.
“Final” feasibility study grant of $287,000 approved to study drawdown, $500,000 already spent.
1977 Winter Garden Citrus Products completes percolation ponds and spray fields, reduces discharge to cooling water.
Peat mining begun on southwestern shore. Effluent and stormwater collected in man-made lake which connects to Lake Apopka.
University of Florida researchers say the lake is “not getting any dirtier” after a half-century of deterioration.
1978 Restoration plan proposed by DER, including a drawdown. Cost $14 million.
First public hearing held in March to begin Environmental Impact Statement process (100 people attend).
1979 Restoration plan to include a drawdown proposed with an estimated cost of $20 million. Citrus growers on the south side of the lake object because of potential freeze damage.
Restoration plan proposed which would include dredging the lake to form an island and north-south causeway across the lake and construction of an airport on the island. Cost: $200 million.
Final Environmental Impact Statement for restoration project completed (required by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).
1980 Winter Garden completes percolation/evaporation system for sewage disposal, most effluent removed from the lake.
1981 Massive fish kills in Lake Apopka reported.
Revised restoration plan proposed which includes a partial drawdown at a cost of $ 3 million.