Governing Board editorial: Future bright for Lake Jackson

By Jon Costello and Marc Dunbar Governing Board members

Marc Dunbar Official

One of our greatest concerns as Leon County’s representatives on the Governing Board of the Northwest Florida Water Management District is the health of Lake Jackson, and we are pleased to be a part of the latest chapter of the lake’s restoration and protection story.

It’s a success story that began more than 30 years ago – and it is one worth sharing.

Urban and suburban development within the southern portion of the lake’s watershed began causing much of Lake Jackson’s troubles as early as the 1970s. Major development projects, including the construction of the Tallahassee Mall and the construction of I-10 across the Meginnis Arm drainage area, contributed a significant amount of sediment runoff into the lake.

In 1976, the EPA funded a research project to identify solutions to the influx of excess nutrients and sediments and, by 1983, the Northwest Florida Water Management District had teamed with the EPA and DEP (Department of Natural Resources) to construct the Meginniss Arm Stormwater Treatment Facility. This was the first of many strides toward restoring and protecting the lake from the impacts of urban stormwater.

At the time, the $2.6 million facility was one of the more innovative stormwater treatment projects in the country. The facility was expanded in 1990 to treat even more stormwater before it entered the lake.

As development continued to expand through the 1980s and beyond, so did the construction of additional stormwater treatment facilities throughout the lake’s basin. And the District’s partners were there the entire time.

In cooperation with Leon County and the City of Tallahassee, regional stormwater treatment facilities have been constructed or restored at Yorktown Pond (in 1995), Boone Boulevard (2005), the Okeeheepkee Basin (2007 and 2010), Harbinwood Estates (2008), and Sharer Road (2009).

In fact, since 2005 alone, more than $19 million has been spent to lessen the impact of stormwater runoff into Lake Jackson.

In addition to well-planned stormwater treatment projects, sometimes a beneficial project presents itself when you don’t expect it.

When Lake Jackson went dry due to its rather infamous sinkhole in 1999, the District joined forces with Leon County, the Florida Legislature, DEP, and FWC to remove more than two million cubic yards of nutrient-laden, organic muck from the lake’s bottom. The $8.2 million project took nearly two years to complete, and the benefit to the resource was enormous.

The District made another significant investment toward protecting Lake Jackson by purchasing more than 500 acres of land within Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park in 1992.

The District owns the land on the eastern shore of the lake, but manages the property through a cooperative arrangement with the City of Tallahassee. The city purchased an additional 162 acres adjacent to the park to complement the District’s project and further protect the lake.

All told, more than $42 million has been invested into Lake Jackson since 1983. This money has come from a variety of partners, including the Florida Legislature, DEP, FWC, FDOT, Leon County, the City of Tallahassee, and the District.

That investment has paid off.

In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the levels of Chlorophyll a, Total Nitrogen, and Total Phosphorus in the lake were well within the state’s Numeric Nutrient Criteria. A long-term view of the lake’s nutrient levels shows it trending in the right direction. Lake Jackson’s vegetative community registered as “healthy” in the most recent sampling data. In fact, the vast majority of the vegetation in the lake is native.

This is all good news, and it did not happen overnight. No single entity and no single project improved the lake’s water quality on its own. But each partner and each project has added another chapter to the lake’s success story.

Now 30 years after the initial investment, the District and its partners are planning for what’s next.

We are in the early stages of updating the District’s Surface Water Improvement and Management plan for the Ochlockonee River and Bay watershed that will focus on the long-term health of Lake Jackson and other natural resources in the region.

As a part of this process, the District will continue to work with a technical advisory committee representing local governments and resource agencies, as well as other stakeholder groups, to identify projects needed for the continued restoration and protection of the lake.

We are truly excited about what the future holds for Lake Jackson and the other natural resources in our special region of the state, and we look forward to working with our partners to make this story one still worth sharing in the generations to come.