EAST TAMPA — For decades, East Lake Park residents have watched their 106-acre lake turn from clear blue to a cloudy shade of green.
Thick, soupy sludge clogs canals at the edge of the lake and makes them practically unnavigable. Invasive plants such as hydrilla and parrot feather choke the life out of other plants that help maintain the lake’s fragile ecosystem.
Neighbors have battled for years to return the lake to its original state, adding beneficial plant species and seeking ways to treat runoff water that drains into the lake. This year they bought something they say will help their cause tremendously.
Hal Hart, who has lived on the lake for eight years, recently traveled to Waupaca, Wis., to pick up the new Eco II Lake Harvester that neighbors jokingly have dubbed the “White Unicorn.” The machine cuts weeds, skims algae from the surface of the water and pulls up non-native plants by their roots.
It’s much more efficient than removing those plants by hand or spraying them with harmful chemicals, neighbors say.
“This is a very nonpolluting way to do this,” says Doug Wassmer, another longtime East Lake Park resident.
East Lake, still known to some as Bellows Lake, is sandwiched between Interstate 4, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the Florida State Fairgrounds and the site of the former Eastlake Square Mall.
The lake is one of many on the state’s “impaired” water bodies list. East Lake is in trouble because of high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen in the water, according to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.
“This is an urban lake with urban problems,” says Wassmer, who has worked to fix the lake for years.
Development took off in the area in the early 1970s, said Peter Owens, a wetlands engineer with Hillsborough County’s Environmental Protection Commission. Runoff from the surrounding area drains into the lake, bringing pollutants and chemicals along with it.
Plants need some phosphorous and nitrogen to prosper, but too much can block light, which kills the good plants that animals eat, Owens says. Those same nutrients help the invasive plants grow, and those plants then compete for the oxygen in the water.
“It’s sort of like what happens in any water body,” Owens says. “You get too many nutrients and you get algal blooms and excessive plant growth.”
Tom Ash, general manager of the Environmental Protection Commission, says most Florida lakes have problems with invasive plants, especially hydrilla. The best way to control them is to eliminate them completely from a body of water, then take steps — such as thoroughly washing the hulls of boats that move among different lakes — to prevent them from getting in again.
The same goes for the phosphorous, nitrogen and other pollutants that get in the water, he says.
“The key of course is just trying to not pollute to begin with,” Ash says, “because once the pollution is in the water, it’s far more expensive to get out of it. The cheapest thing to do is keep it from getting in there to begin with.”
In the past three years, residents of the East Lake Park neighborhood have pulled out thousands of weeds and invasive plants, replacing them with native Florida species that help to filter pollutants out of the water, Hart says.
The Saturday “work parties” he has organized in the neighborhood will be more fun in the future, he says. The single-operator “White Unicorn” can take care of the dirty work now.
“That’s the past,” Hart says, referring to the days when dozens of residents would pull out the unwanted plants by hand.
The harvester cost him about $57,000, which includes the expense of moving it from Wisconsin to Florida. Hart hopes to take the machine to other neighborhoods and offer its services to clean out their lakes and ponds.
The city’s parks and recreation department also has an aquatic harvester, which slowly has been clearing the lake at Bobby Hicks Park in South Tampa since it arrived earlier this year, said department Director Greg Bayor.
Thanks to their new harvester, the residents of East Lake Park will be able to rid the lake of the invasive plants more quickly, Hart says. And, hopefully, it will enable them to return the lake to good health that much sooner.
East Lake is what attracted all the residents to the neighborhood in the first place, Hart says.
“This lake is really, to me, the center of our life here,” he says. “I think in 10 years we’re going to be in a completely different place.”
Owens admits East Lake won’t be an easy or inexpensive fix, but the neighbors are moving it in the right direction with the new harvester.
“This can be done. It’s just a very complicated process,” he says. “It’s not something to give up on.”