APOPKA, Fla. — For decades, scientists have said Lake Apopka is "dead." Farming along the shore turned one of the nation's best bass fishing spots into a toxic pool of sludge. But it's finally showing some signs of life. The Florida Wildlife Commission recently stocked Lake Apopka with baby bass now that conditions finally have improved enough to keep them alive.
Channel 9's Field Sutton found out the state has poured $185 million into the lake and started asking how much more it will take to bring it completely back to life.
Just about every day, there are boats on Lake Apopka. They're out there fishing, not for bass, but as part of a project for the St. Johns River Water Management District focused on harvesting fish called "shad" by the thousands.
"Ultimately, most of them go to Louisiana for crawfish or crab bait," Dr. Erich Marzolf said.
Marzolf, who oversees the rehab of Lake Apopka on behalf of the water management district, said shad pollute the water and block out the sunlight plants need to grow.
"Those plants were the base of the food web that the bass and other sport fish were depending on," Marzolf said.
Up on the shore, thousands of acres of farmland bought by the state have been turned into a natural water filter called a “marsh flow way.” It's like a maze, filled with twists, turns and natural filters that allow water to flow in off the lake and come back out cleaner than when it entered.
"The environment has improved as a result of their efforts," said John Werner, Seminole State College earth sciences professor.
Without the state's intervention, Werner said, Lake Apopka might have followed the natural process of drying out over a span of centuries before it fixed itself on its own.
"Natural ecosystems can restore themselves over long time scale,” he said. “We want to try to hurry up the process."
He said researchers have learned a lot about bringing dead lakes back to life. But their biggest lesson was also the simplest.
"It is always less expensive in the long run to protect areas like this to begin with, rather than letting them decay and then finding out we need to restore them," Werner said.
Marzolf said he sees signs of progress. But progress has a price: $112 million to buy up all that farmland on the north shore, $37 million for construction and maintenance, $21 million to get rid of pesticides in the ground and $8 million for studies.
Three decades in, Marzolf had a quick response to questions about the return on the $185 million investment.
"I'd say it's awfully good," Marzolf said.
No one knows how expensive bringing Lake Apopka back to life will end up being, or how long it will take.