From OrlandoSentinel.com, Joy Wallace Dickinson, Florida Flashback, 1 May 2011.
[FL] — Sometimes the biggest stories in Central Florida’s past are the hardest to grasp, to get our minds around.
Take the story of how Lake Apopka was transformed over decades from a pristine paradise into the state’s most polluted large lake, and the effort to reclaim it. We often talk about it with charts and graphs and numbers, but it affected many folks in untold, personal ways.
The problems began as early as the 1880s, experts say, and citrus plants started pouring untreated waste into the lake in the 1920s.
But the big troubles date from the early 1940s, when the state built a levee along the north shore to drain 20,000 acres for farming, to increase agricultural production during World War II. The rich farmland became a source of pride, its bounty helping to feed the nation.
Over time, phosphorous runoff from the muck farms’ fertilizer fed the algae in Lake Apopka, choking the habitat for bass. Once-clear water looked like pea soup.
In the late 1990s, the state bought out the muck farms as part of a sweeping program to stop the pollution that, it turned out, extended beyond the lake’s water. In late 1998 and early 1999, more than 1,000 fish-eating birds were found dead around Lake Apopka. Federal investigators later linked the deaths to a class of pesticides once used on the farms.
The story was retold in capsule form recently in Winter Garden at a program titled “The Lake Apopka Basin: 5000 Years in One Hour,” hosted by the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation and other groups. And judging from the report by David Walker of the St. Johns River Water Management District, the lake is coming back. Aerial photos show clearer water; charts detail the millions of pounds of waste that have been removed. The 346 species of birds found in the area now exceed those in Everglades National Park, one speaker said.
Fabric of lost lives
But remember those 1,000 dead birds? People — farmworkers — also worked with those chemicals. To tell their stories, members of the Apopka-area farmworker communities have created a memorial project inspired by the national AIDS Memorial Quilt. Titled the Lake Apopka Farmworkers Memorial Quilt, it seeks to honor the workers at the muck farms and to raise awareness about the problems of pesticide exposure and its long-term consequences.
Squares in the quilt put a human face on this huge issue. In one square, for example, Earma Peterson used bright scraps of fabric to create a scene that portrays her uncle, John Johnson, hoeing peanuts while his wife, Lula, plays with a cat in their front yard.
John Johnson is pictured wearing a hat and overalls: clothes that possibly carried the residue of chemicals such as DDT. At the time, most farmers and farmworkers had no way of knowing about the effects of these pesticides.
For almost two years, representatives of the Apopka memorial project have been taking the quilt to a wide variety of programs to raise awareness. Now, they’re stepping up their efforts with a fund-raising campaign to support the project for the next three years.
This weekend, they’ll be at the 50th Annual Apopka Art & Foliage Festival at Kit Land Nelson Park, and every Monday in May, they’ll be at the Audubon Park Community Market at Stardust Video & Coffee, 1842 E. Winter Park Road in Orlando; the market starts at 6 p.m. Also see apopkaquiltproject.blogspot.com.
‘The Last Harvest’ returns
Another powerful artistic project about the Lake Apopka farmworkers is on display through June 12 at the Cornell Museum at Rollins College; it’s the photography exhibit “The Last Harvest: A History and Tribute to the Life and Work of the Farmworkers on Lake Apopka,” created in the late 1990s by students at Winter Park’s Crealdé School of Art. Their goal was to capture images from a community that found its way of life was rapidly coming to an end. Details: rollins.edu/cfam and 407-646-2526.