Understanding the value of water
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In this issue
Ongoing partnerships are helping to restore Lake Apopka, and expanding ecotourism opportunities, including a new wildlife drive.
Relocation of the species enhances work to reinforce, expand flood protection levees.
Scientists use a variety of technology in the field to keep a watchful eye on Florida’s water.
Birders have flocked to the north shore property for many years to see some of the more than 362 species of birds that frequent the public property.
New wildlife drive a symbol of ongoing partnerships at Lake Apopka
Improving water quality in the lake has increased nature-based recreational opportunities.
Maria Zondervan stops the truck, grabs her binoculars and zeroes in on a solitary great blue heron standing at the water’s edge. A slender fish — it appears to be a gar — struggles in vain to escape the bird's clamped beak.
“The heron is trying to swallow the fish so that its head is first,” explains Zondervan, a land manager with the St. Johns River Water Management District. “Otherwise, the fish’s scales would cause it to become stuck in the heron’s throat. Great blue herons are aggressive eaters. I’ve seen them eat water moccasins four or five feet in length.”
Zondervan is guiding a pickup truck along the new Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, a meandering 11-mile roadway of crushed concrete and lime rock showcasing one of the most prolific inland birding sites in the United States. Bird diversity is extraordinary in this area — a list of birds seen at the property continues to grow and now includes more than 362 species. Thousands of visitors come from around the globe to catch glimpses of egrets, herons, bald eagles, hawks, ospreys and the occasional rarities that ignite a buzz among visiting Audubon groups.
“Prior to the wildlife drive opening, we had incidents where people would bust through the gate to add a rare bird to their checklists,” says Zondervan, an ornithology expert herself, whose other duties include relocating endangered Florida scrub-jays and red-cockaded woodpeckers from threatened properties to conservation lands. “Some people will risk jail to see a rare enough bird.”
The thoroughfare — replete with scenic pullovers, restrooms, picnic pavilions and a canoe launch — also marks a milestone in the District’s ongoing restoration of what was once the most polluted lake in Florida.
An osprey finds a perch.
In the 1940s, Lake Apopka was one of the most popular attractions in central Florida, a vibrant cobalt jewel that offered world-class bass fishing. More than 20 fish camps dotted the lake's shoreline during its heyday. However, during that same decade, 20,000 acres of the lake’s north shore was diked and drained for farming, reducing the lake to 30,000 acres in size. In the decades that followed, the lake succumbed to agricultural discharges laden with phosphorus, treated wastewater discharges from shoreline communities and discharges from citrus processing plants. The state’s fourth largest lake turned from blue to a sickly green.
The Lake Apopka Restoration Act of 1985 and Florida’s Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) Act in 1987 paved the way for restoration work to begin. The District launched a succession of activities and projects, starting with the purchase of agricultural land along the lake’s north shore and restoring the former marshes to wetlands. Ensuing projects included the construction of a marsh flow-way system that filters pollutants from the lake’s water, and the removal of millions of gizzard shad that pump phosphorus into the lake and squeeze out native sport fish.
Today, robust partnerships and grand visions fuel the gradual transformation of Lake Apopka from a symbol of ecological neglect to a burgeoning ecotourism hub. The District, Lake and Orange counties (whose jurisdictions envelop the lake), The Friends of Lake Apopka and the Green Mountain Scenic Byway Committee have collaborated to weave a steadily expanding loop trail around the lake, with 15 miles already completed.
“There are so many partners who bring talent and resources to the table,” says Steven R. Miller, the District’s Land Management bureau chief. “We’re not a traditional recreation-focused agency like a park service. We’ve looked to Orange and Lake counties to provide manicured trailheads and amenities. We provide the rustic areas between the trailheads. Without their assistance, we wouldn’t be able to deliver the full menu.”
June 2012 marked a pivotal point as a crowd gathered at Magnolia Park to witness the unveiling of the eastern gateway to the Lake Apopka Loop Trail. The trailhead is inviting. Live oaks drip with Spanish moss that shade the parking lot, bathrooms and informational kiosk. The first half-mile of the trail is paved before it morphs into the earthen levee that helped drain so much of the lake for agriculture so many years ago.
“The trail has brought communities together and built better relationships between local governments, environmental groups and other stakeholders,” says Matt Suedmeyer, Orange County Parks and Recreation Division manager. “Everyone is starting to realize that Lake Apopka isn’t a green, unappealing water body that nobody cares about.”
Suedmeyer says the parking lot at Magnolia Park is busier since the trail loop opened.
“We’re seeing about 500 cars a month at the trailhead,” he says. “The birdwatching opportunities definitely provide a benefit to the area.”
A picnic area and an historic pump house offer a view of the lake along the Lake Apopka Loop Trail.
Orange County Commissioner Bryan Nelson is one of the most vocal proponents of the economic potential Lake Apopka’s north shore offers as an ecotourism attraction. He points to the success of the most recent Birdapalooza festival held in February that drew more than 4,000 people. The annual event features boat tours and walking tours of the restoration area led by birding experts from the District and the Audubon Society, fishing lessons for kids and an assemblage of vendors and exhibitors specializing in outdoor recreation, birding gear and regional handmade crafts.
“It was the biggest Birdapalooza ever,” Nelson says. “We were almost at capacity. It’s a great problem to have.”
Nelson also chairs the newly formed Coalition for Lake Apopka Ecotourism, whose newly inked mission is "to create a world-class ecotourism destination which balances economic development with the protection and restoration of Lake Apopka's vast and unique environmental resources to create significant nature-based opportunities for both visitors and residents of central Florida."
“It’s said that you can’t be all things to all people, but Lake Apopka might be the exception. There’s fishing, boating, birding, wildlife, biking and hiking. You have all these opportunities on the north shore.”
— Bryan Nelson
Orange County Commissioner
"It's said that you can't be all things to all people, but Lake Apopka might be the exception," Nelson says. "There's fishing, boating, birding, wildlife, biking and hiking. You have all these opportunities on the north shore."
On the west side of the lake, Lake County in December 2014 unveiled its own trailhead and an elegant observation tower called the Green Mountain Scenic Overlook. Developed in partnership with the District and the Green Mountain Scenic Byway Committee, this western gateway features a 130-foot elevated boardwalk leading to an overlook with views of downtown Orlando and Lake Apopka, a covered pavilion with picnic tables, public restrooms and a switchback trail from the parking area to an old railroad bed. The District is working with Lake County to link the new trailhead to the District's north shore trails.
The Green Mountain Scenic Byway flanks the west side of Lake Apopka. The area's rolling hills may be a far cry from anything resembling mountains, but the winding byway draws competitive cyclists from around the world, as well as motorcyclists and classic car clubs.
Wendy Breeden, Lake County Public Resources director, says the Scenic Overlook is drawing in locals and tourists alike. She envisions a time when the Lake Apopka Loop Trail completely encircles the lake, linking Lake County's trail system with both the District's North Shore property and Orange County.
"People who see the overlook enjoy it," she says. "This area is heavily travelled by cyclists and they’re starting to discover the trailhead."
People are also beginning to discover the wildlife drive, which brings close-up wildlife experiences to everyone, regardless of physical abilities.
“The wildlife drive provides a tremendous expansion of public access to the area,” Miller says. “This is new territory for us and another example of fabulous partnerships with local governments. We get together and look at each challenge and each other and say, ‘This is what I can bring to the table. What are your needs?’ It’s like a barn raising.”