Basin board approves aquatic plantings to help restore Lake Trafford

The largest fresh water lake south of Okeechobee was once an oxygen-starved, pea-green mess until efforts to dredge muck helped restore it.

Lake Trafford in Immokalee underwent tens of millions of dollars’ worth of restoration since nonnative aquatic plants took over the ecosystem in the 1970s, yet it remains on the state’s list of impaired water bodies.

New solutions are surfacing, however, as the Big Cypress Basin Board again turns its attention to the nearly 1,500-acre lake. The board operates under the South Florida Water Management District and concentrates on the basin spanning Collier County and parts of Monroe County.

Partnering with the Florida Gulf Coast University’s Water School and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the board unanimously voted for two separate eelgrass planting projects during its first meeting of 2020.

An airboat tour crosses the water at Lake Trafford in Immokalee on Friday, February 21, 2020.

“There are a lot of agencies that have their hands in the lake,” said Edwin “Win” Everham, a marine and ecological science professor at FGCU. “It is one of the best examples of work I’ve done to collaborate with what’s best for the lake.”

Eelgrass plantings will help create a “living” shoreline able to soak up nutrients that could cause algal blooms, said lead project manager Shawn Meyer during the Feb. 21 meeting. The aquatic plants will also help with water clarity and fish habitat.

The plant can help keep the lake’s water clear, which in turn will keep nutrient-rich sediment from accumulating in the water columns and possibly prevent harmful algal blooms from forming.

More:Thriving largemouth bass show revival of Lake Trafford

The FGCU planting will total $55,000, with $27,500 funded through the basin board. FWC’s eelgrass project will total $35,000, with $17,500 funded through the board.

“I feel that we need to protect the taxpayers’ investment that they’ve already made in the lake with that major dredging effort that we spent millions on,” said board chair Charlette Roman. “Hopefully with (this) continued partnership we’ll be able to do that.”

Efforts to restore Lake Trafford began after nutrient runoff and invasive plants, namely hydrilla, deteriorated the waters. FWC applied herbicide to control the invasive plants, which resulted in a deep layer of nutrient-rich muck on the lake’s bottom. Those excess nutrients degraded native species’ habitat and contributed to fish kills.

Visitors look out over the water from the pier at Lake Trafford in Immokalee on Friday, February 21, 2020.

In 2010, the district finished a $22 million project that removed more than 6 million cubic yards, the equivalent of 55,000 semi-truck loads, of the muck and transported it to an impoundment area north of the lake.

The district created a management plan in 2018 calling for several water quality and habitat restoration plans. The five water and sediment quality plans include nutrient monitoring, wastewater strategies and best management practices. The approved eelgrass plantings are meant to address a number of these plans.

More:Tourism funds to go toward Lake Trafford pier

Both eelgrass plantings will take place in the spring of 2020 before the wet season begins, Meyer said.

The plants will be in cages throughout different areas of the lake. The cages will help the plants establish themselves and reduce predation. Both planting projects respectively hope to cover 30% of the lake’s shoreline.

“Until we get the lake cleaned up, our ability for success is going to be tough,” said Beacham Furse of the FWC during the meeting. “We strongly support anything we can to get improvements in the lake — we need to get it cleaned up.”

In conjunction with the plantings, the board unanimously approved a collaboration with FWC for mechanical harvesting of invasive vegetation from the lake. The agency will harvest between July 1 and Dec. 30 this year since the proper equipment requires higher water levels.

The harvesting costs are $290,000, with the board approving $145,000 toward the project.

Eelgrass plantings are only a fraction of the projects proposed under the Lake Trafford Management Plan.

Lake Trafford in Immokalee, photographed on Friday, February 21, 2020.

During the meeting, Eric Flaig of the district presented the board with plans for a $49.9 million filter marsh to help fix water quality issues in the lake.

The filter marsh proposal calls for water to be pumped from the lake to the original impoundment area to the north. The area covers 378 acres and water would have to be pumped up a 20-foot elevation.

“When I first became a Big Cypress Basin Board member, (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service talked about the spoil area,” Roman said. “It’s an expensive project and who would’ve known we put spoil uphill. Now we have at least something we can talk about.”

MoreAs muck is dredged away, Lake Trafford shows signs of life again

Belle Meade restoration

The basin board also listened to a proposal for restoration efforts to the Belle Meade watershed. John Loper of Taylor Engineering said the sheet flow restoration to the Belle Meade area would complement efforts in the Picayune Strand State Forest.

The proposed project would divert up to 100 cubic feet per second of water from the Golden Gate Canal into spreader swales that would create a sheet flow of the project area.

Members of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the Florida Wildlife Federation offered support for the project but were concerned with the waters impeding wildlife connectivity in the area.

“In 2016, Daniel Smith issued a report including recommendations for wildlife features along this stretch of Belle Meade,” said Meredith Budd of FWF. “USFWS requested that Collier County put (wildlife crossings) in this feature, but this is still not been considered as part of this project. We’re very supportive of this project but continue to advocate for safe wildlife linkages.”

More:Massive Everglades restoration project in Picayune Strand more than two thirds complete

Smith is a research associate at the University of Central Florida's Department of Biology whose work has focused on habitat connectivity and wildlife crossings.

Marisa Carrozzo of the Conservancy also asked the board to consider issues of water quality within the project.

“We have a number of downstream impairments and we want to ensure this does not exacerbate the impairments we already have,” she said.

The basin board will hold its next public meeting on April 23.

Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @karlstartswithk, email him at