U.S. Water News Online
APOPKA, Fla. — Each hour, more than a million gallons of water from the state's most polluted large lake flow downstream into vital Lake County waterways. With that flow comes a noxious mix of algae, phosphorous, nitrogen and other plant particles that can change crystal-clear lakes into an unhealthy pea-soup color, driving away swimmers, boaters and fishermen.
Now Lake County water officials have turned to a centuries-old method — one used by the ancient Romans — to cleanse the polluted water flowing out of Lake Apopka and into the Harris Chain of Lakes. They will inject the water with aluminum sulfate, commonly known as alum.
In early March, the Lake County Water Authority is scheduled to begin operating its $7.3 million water-treatment facility on the Apopka-Beauclair Canal. Considered the world's largest project for treating polluted lake water with alum, the operation sits on about 50 acres along the canal just south of County Road 48.
"This is something that has been needed here for a long time," said Lance Lumbard, the authority's water-resources project manager.
Lake officials are optimistic that in the coming years the treatment facility will help restore seven lakes in the Harris chain, attracting outdoor enthusiasts who could boost the region's economy. "We have this beautiful county in Central Florida and the lakes are a big part of it," said Dottie Keedy, Lake's director of economic growth and development.
"Having clean lakes is not just good for tourism, but it helps in luring in businesses."
The project is considered a long-term investment. Its promise of cleaner water may take years for residents and visitors to notice. It could be as soon as two years if the area receives a significant amount of rainfall, raising the water levels of Lake Apopka.
Still, it has prompted some local governments to action.
Tavares, which sits on Lake Dora's northwest shore, recently began a multimillion-dollar effort to renovate its lakefront Wooton Park.
"A vast majority of our economic development focuses on Wooton Park, and the water quality of Lake Dora is very important to that effort," said Bill Neron, Tavares' economic-development director. "When I got here in 2001, there were water-quality problems and the fishing tournaments went away . . . So from an economic development standpoint, (water quality) is critical."
Depending on the amount of water flowing downstream from Lake Apopka, the facility can treat up to 8 million gallons of water per hour. At this time, an average of 1.3 million gallons of water flows through the canal per hour due to the lake's lower-than-normal water levels.
Lake County Water Authority officials expect the facility to cost up to $1.2 million a year to operate as it treats more than 90 percent of the water flowing through the canal.
The agency has socked away money for the project for years and will not need to raise taxes to pay for it, officials said. They hope the facility won't be needed forever.
"The economics should pay for this itself," Lumbard said. Dr. Harvey Harper, a former professor of environmental engineering for the University of Central Florida and president of Environmental Research and Design in Orlando, said alum is a "very inexpensive" method for removing phosphorous from lake water. One gallon of alum costing about 75 cents can treat roughly 10,000 gallons of polluted water.
"That's one of the nice things about this technology," Harper said.
But not everyone is happy with the project.
The environmental group Friends of Lake Apopka said the facility sits on environmentally sensitive land that never has been tilled and long has been used for grazing cattle.
"We're not opposed to the project. We oppose the site," said Jim Thomas, the group's former president and founder. "That is a wet prairie and our concern is that there is very little wet prairie left in Florida — it all has been either drained or flooded. It's a site with a very delicate hydrological situation that can never be restored."
The Lake County Water Authority should have built the facility farther north on the canal and closer to Lake Beauclair, where it could pick up even more phosphorous and other pollutants flowing into the lake, Thomas said.
Thomas added he is concerned about the environmental impact of tons of floc - the byproduct of the system — being spread across the containment area to dry.
Mount Dora resident Judi Dorman, who has a home on the shore of Lake Dora, said the project "sounds like a good idea to me."
The Lake Dora water "has been pretty yucky and it's not something I would stick my toe in," she said. "But if it was cleaner, not only would it bring more water sports, but it would be good for the fish and the birds and the gators."
Floc, the cakelike substance that's left over and looks like snow, will be spread across a 21-acre containment area on the property to dry. It also can be used for soil restoration on polluted land around Lake Apopka by helping remove fertilizers and other pollutants. County officials also are considering selling the floc. For example, it could be used to help restore parts of the Florida Everglades polluted by farm runoff, said Lance Lumbard, the county's water resources project manager.
"Selling it would be ideal," he said. "If we have enough, we would be able to turn it into a commodity."
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