The ecological tragedy of
Lake Apopka as a political, environmental and cultural disaster area
Three factors reveal underlying causes and consequences of environmental change in the 20th century, despite the rise movements like conservation to protect wildlife.
1. A reclamation & water diversion project, in 1941, for the Ocklawaha valley.
2. Programs that reinforced poor farming practices even in times of oversupply.
3. Suburban sprawl since 1956 has altered watersheds and landscapes.
Each of these stories –by transference – or comparison– helps us to discern the factors involved with a local ecological disaster.
Lake Apopka, central Florida.
Once Florida’s premier bass fishery (sport) and second largest lake, the lakeshores today harbor two superfund sites, two landfills, a medical waste disposal site, an agricultural water run-off, marsh restoration project, and a growing suburban development pattern of land-use and land-use changes.
First, the diversion of water in the Ocklawaha River Valley, of which Lake Apopka is one source, for agricultural purposes, established a recurrent problem of water degradation due to a sub-tropical climate and unstable land-use practices.
Second, the state and federal policies to aid agricultural development through compliance with drainage district requests, even in periods of agricultural surpluses, created a pattern of canal digging, dams and dikes that encouraged land owners to seek more and more federal support for expansion of vegetable crops and silage for livestock.
Third, the desire for the residential pattern dominated by single-family housing units required a series of structural modifications including pavement, extending water and sewer lines, electricity and urban services that had the combined impacts of diverting water and resources that encroached on the water quality of the lake, its fishery, and birds.
The combined influence of these three disparate impacts is greater than the sum of their contributing parts lead to a cultural alteration of the lake’s ecology. The first signs of this shift were the change in the quality and quantity of the bass fishery. But as time progressed the drainage and dike building along the Lake’s north shore exposed old lake bottom to intensive farming. The organic content of the soil – composed as it was from the decayed marsh vegetation of the lakebed—while ideal for crops began to change. When water logged soils are exposed to air, they are oxidized by bacteria and literally disappear into thin air. Soil loss and vegetable growing required an application of fertilizer and pesticides.
As the industrial changes required to sustain profitable agriculture spread, several unfortunate human errors contaminated the lake including a spill at a chemical plant of the pesticide DDT near the south western—spring fed portion of the water body. The migrant workers used to plant and harvest the growing agricultural areas north of the lake were required to apply fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides to assure more robust crops despite the vicissitudes of changing climatic conditions and soil loss. All of these landscape impacts left ample evidence in water, wildlife, and people of a shift from a robust fishery-sustaining place into an agrarian waste handling facility detrimental to bass fishing. But of all the evidence for degradation none is more revealing and disturbing than the loss of lives and health among the farm worker populations toiling in the lakeside orchards and fields.
Websites of Interest:
Alligator and Bass Deformities –
Restoration planned and re-flooding of wetlands:
Lake Apopka timeline site: http://www.fola.org/PDFs/LakeApopkaTimeline.pdf
Orlando Sentinel Articles on Lake Apopka: