A new pilot program vows to restore polluted Lake Apopka to its original glory in just a couple of years.
The project doesn't dredge or use chemicals. The magic bullet is oxygen, and it's seeing measurable results, according to conservationist Jay Barfield, CEO of Allied Group, which is spearheading the program.
“Lake Apopka has a lot of muck,” Barfield said. “We can remove muck without dredging. We bring oxygen to the bottom.”
It’s a process called oxygenation. A square device is responsible for pumping microscopic bubbles of oxygen to breathe new life into the Lake Apopka's muck.
“We’re bringing back the friendly bacteria that helps clean the lake,” Barfield said. “These worms, they’re by the thousands. They’re eating the muck. And the fish are coming here because this is where the oxygen is and where the food is.”
Introducing oxygen creates a chain reaction. Gasses and chemicals that have long hurt the lake are now being forced out of the muck.
“See all those bubbles?” Barfield asked. “That’s a good sign. That’s hydrogen sulfide. We’re speeding up decay.”
You can spot all of his diffusers bubbling up to the surface. A total of 99 diffusers are spread throughout the northeast corner of the lake, making up just one percent of the 30,000-acre lake.
Barfield said based on his results, these oxygen diffusers could save Lake Apopka, which was once a world-renowned fishing paradise. Decades of farming along its shores turned it into one of Florida’s largest polluted lakes.
The state has spent almost $200 million during the past 20 years to try to clean it up.
You won’t see any boaters on the lake fishing or entertaining. The water is so polluted with chemicals and disease-producing bacteria that it is not safe to swim.
“You had about 70 or 80 years of heavy pollution,” Barfield said. “This used to be one of the fishing meccas for blue eel and speckled perch. Now they are here, but not in quantities anymore because of the water quality.”
Trying to undo the damage is no small undertaking.
“Most of the runoff has stopped now because there’s no farming,” Barfield said. “The state bought 20,000 acres, which is really a swamp.”
The state spent $200 million to acquire that land and continues to budget millions more for cleanup projects.
“We’re trying everything we can reasonably do to accelerate that cleanup,” State Sen. Alan Hays (R-Umatilla) said. “It’s a tremendous potential asset.”
“We've been in here now for 90 days,” Barfield said. “When we started, you could see one to two inches in the water. Now, we can see anywhere from 10 to 14 inches.”
There is a significant difference between water samples from the treated versus untreated areas of the lake. One is mostly dark brown muck, while the other has a much clearer consistency that is a mix of light green and yellow.
“Yes it’s working,” Barfield said. “We can do it,” he said. “It just depends on the funding and how much we’re able to put in each year. My saying is, 'We help Lake Apopka heal itself.' And that’s what we’re doing. You will one day be able to see to the bottom. In two or three years from now, there could be hundreds of boats out here. And that’s our goal.