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State officials to propose a waterfowl area at Lake Apopka

Image of FWC's Director of Habitat and Species Conservation Melissa Tucker, addressing state lawmakers during an appropriations subcommittee meeting Thursday, December 8, 2023.
The Florida Channel
FWC's Director of Habitat and Species Conservation Melissa Tucker updated state lawmakers on efforts to manage invasive plants in Lake Apopka during an appropriations subcommittee meeting on Thursday, December 8, 2023.

St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) staff plan to propose a new, marked waterfowl area at Lake Apopka, according to officials who met in Tallahassee Thursday to discuss the lake’s condition with state lawmakers.

The potential waterfowl area was one of several different lake management strategies discussed at Thursday’s meeting of the state House of Representatives’ Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture & Natural Resources, where lawmakers heard from SJRWMD and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) about ongoing efforts to restore and maintain Lake Apopka.

Lake Apopka is Florida’s fourth-largest lake, today spanning more than 30,000 acres, according to SJRWMD Assistant Executive Director Mary Ellen Winkler. On Thursday, Winkler called it “Florida’s original tourist attraction.”

Today, Lake Apopka remains a fixture for fishing and waterfowl hunting, but some worry that might not be the case for much longer. Many fishing and hunting enthusiasts shared their concerns about herbicide treatments with FWC commissioners at a different meeting earlier this week.

“I feel a lot like FSU, because I'm watching this lake just get crushed,” said one waterfowl hunter, Travis Thompson, during FWC’s public comment period Tuesday. “And it's a pretty important lake … This is the single most important waterfowl lake in the state of Florida, bar none.”

Another concerned citizen, Newton Cook, asked FWC why it has “totally abandoned” Lake Apopka’s wildlife and habitat, by allowing excessive herbicide spraying there: “You destroy the wildlife. And the fishing, which is back! But it won’t be back next year,” he warned.

Image of a map showing the location of a potential future waterfowl area on Lake Apopka's west marsh.
St. Johns River Water Management District
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St. Johns River Water Management District plans to propose a new, marked waterfowl area next year when revising the district's land management plan for Lake Apopka North Shore, according to presentation materials shared Thursday with a House appropriations subcommittee.

Methods to manage invasive plants

At Thursday’s appropriations subcommittee meeting, Winkler told lawmakers the herbicides SJRWMD uses at Lake Apopka are safe, and necessary: to control invasive plants like hydrilla, which grows quickly and can harm other, native plants.

Hydrilla’s exponentially fast growth rate also makes it a threat to flood control for Lake Apopka, which Winkler says only has a single canal for a relief valve.

“We want to make sure that we maintain the outlet for Lake Apopka free of vegetation,” Winkler said. “We are concerned and do not want hydrilla [to] fragment, ball up, and, during storm events, clog things up.”

But some waterfowl hunters insist hydrilla shouldn’t be completely eradicated from Lake Apopka, because it’s a beloved food source and habitat for waterfowl. Acknowledging those concerns Thursday, FWC Director of Habitat and Species Conservation Melissa Tucker advised approaching hydrilla’s benefits with a certain degree of caution.

“Hydrilla, when it is found at low levels in lakes that do not have natural vegetation, can benefit some fish and wildlife,” Tucker said. “It may be beneficial to waterfowl, but it's not necessarily beneficial to the full diversity [of wildlife] that would be found in a lake.”

That’s why Tucker says it’s critical to keep up with “maintenance control,” one of two possible pathways provided by state statute for managing invasive plants on Florida’s public lands. The other possible strategy is eradication.

Image of a map showing where Lake Apopka is receiving herbicide treatment for hydrilla management this fall. The map is from meeting materials presented Thursday by the St. Johns River Water Management District.
St. Johns River Water Management District
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Courtesy Florida House of Representatives
SJRWMD shared this map with lawmakers Thursday, indicating where the state is applying herbicides for hydrilla management in Lake Apopka.

Despite some citizens’ concerns about harmful herbicide impacts and allegedly lax state oversight of herbicide treatments, Winkler told lawmakers Thursday the chemicals used at Lake Apopka are safe.

“It's like a prescription. It was designed so that we wouldn't hurt any of those returning native species. That was very carefully constructed,” Winkler said.

Herbicide treatment is an example of chemical control, just one of the state’s mitigation tools for invasive plants. Different control methods are better for different situations, depending on a lake’s specific conditions and available funding, Tucker said.

For example, one physical control approach could be a drawdown, when a lake’s water level is manipulated to mimic a drought condition. Although benefits can last for decades, Tucker said drawdowns require lots of coordination, and may make the water body unusable for certain purposes during the drought period.

"There is no perfect tool for plant management, and cost is a factor that we have to consider," Tucker said. Although costs vary, she says historically, chemical control has cost less than other methods.

Looking ahead to Lake Apopka's future

Last year state lawmakers allocated $7 million for Lake Apopka restoration efforts, including $2 million specifically for hydrilla management.

Subcommittee member and Florida Rep. Keith Truenow, a Republican representing part of Lake County, praised the state’s work restoring Lake Apopka, an area he says he knows well, after farming there most of his life.

“We've been sprinkling a little bit of money in Lake Apopka to manage the needs, but we really need to take a better focus on Lake Apopka, to achieve the goals in a little bit faster time,” Truenow said Thursday.

“Our work is not done,” Winkler said. “We are trending in the right direction, but additional work is needed."

"We're at that point, where we're starting to look at: what is the next generation? What more can we do to jumpstart recovery?" Winkler said.

SJRWMD expects to receive final results soon from an evaluation of the district’s recent herbicide treatments at Lake Apopka, Winkler told lawmakers Thursday.

Molly is an award-winning reporter with a background in video production and investigative journalism, focused on covering environmental issues for WMFE and WMFV.

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