Lake Apopka — the state’s fourth-largest lake — was once a world-class bass fishery but impacts to the lake over many decades led the lake to be named Florida’s most polluted large lake. The St. Johns River Water Management District and its partners have been writing a new chapter to the story — a story about wetlands restoration, the reduction of total phosphorus and suspended solids in the water to improve water quality and the restoration of wildlife habitat.
Lake Apopka is the headwaters of the Ocklawaha Chain of Lakes, located in northwest Orange and southeast Lake counties. Lake Apopka is fed by a natural spring, rainfall and stormwater runoff. Water from Lake Apopka flows through the Apopka-Beauclair Canal and into lakes Beauclair and Dora. From Lake Dora, water flows into Lake Eustis, then into Lake Griffin and then northward into the Ocklawaha River, which flows into the St. Johns River.
Lake Apopka’s restoration has been based on a multipronged approach of diet and exercise. Diet has focused on reductions in phosphorus entering the lake, which has included reducing the volume of water pumped from the district’s North Shore property to the lake, treating all discharges to inactivate phosphorus and passage of the Lake Apopka Stormwater Rule. Exercise is removal of phosphorus from the lake, which has included harvest of rough fish (largely gizzard shad) from the lake to remove phosphorus and operating the marsh flow-way to remove phosphorus and suspended solids. Like many restoration projects, the district has partners at Lake Apopka, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which has planted native aquatic vegetation, stocked largemouth bass and installed fish attractors, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is investigating innovative technologies for removing additional phosphorus from the lake.
Support for the lake’s restoration has long been evident, including at a December 2011 Lake Apopka Summit spearheaded by Florida Sen. Alan Hays. That summit brought together state, county and city elected officials throughout the region, along with officials from DEP, the district, the University of Florida, FWC, Lake County Water Authority, Friends of Lake Apopka, and the Harris Chain of Lakes Restoration Council. Recently, restoration work has been enhanced with legislative funding of $5 million annually through fiscal year 2025–2026.
In response to recent and ongoing restoration efforts, phosphorus concentrations in the lake have declined significantly. These declines have not been steady, experiencing large seasonal changes as well as responding to several multi-year droughts. The declines are significant and began quickly after the lake’s phosphorus diet and exercise program began in 1993. The improved water quality now provides conditions which are allowing native submerged plants to recolonize the lake’s bottom. As these plants expand, they provide the habitat critical to the recovery of the lake’s historic bass fishery.
Video: Lake Apopka: Road to recovery