Lake Bonnet at sunset from the shore of Bonnet Springs Park. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

Residents walk by them, jog and bike around them, and picnic beside them, but Lakes and Stormwater Division manager Laurie Smith told city commissioners on Monday that nine of Lakeland’s 38 named lakes have significant water quality challenges.

Many of the lakes – including some of the city’s most popular – are at the maximum level of pollutants allowed by state and federal law and need intervention to remove harmful nutrients and sediment.

Smith said the prioritization process is driven by state and federal regulatory mandates, including the stormwater that flows into a lake and the pollution it carries with it, the quality of the water already in the lake and the plants that can contribute to its degradation, the availability of funding to pay for cleanup, and the accessibility of the water body.

“When you hear us talk about total maximum daily loads, that is a regulation, a mandate from the state and federal government that we need to reduce pollutants in our stormwater that are discharging into our lakes,” said Smith, adding that they also must reduce nutrients or plants in the water, which lead to a reduction in water quality. “The other driving force obviously, is the availability of funding and the project cost.”

The city funds the projects using capital improvement funds and through grants.

Highest-priority lakes

The nine “priority regulated” lakes are:

  • Lake Hunter
  • Lake Bonny
  • Crystal Lake
  • Lake Hollingsworth
  • Lake Parker
  • Lake Bonnet
  • Lake Morton
  • Lake Mirror
  • Lake Gibson

All of those lakes have ongoing improvement projects.

Nine lakes in Lakeland are listed as priorities to be cleaned.

Lake Hunter is at the top of the list.  It recently underwent a makeover that included $500,000 in co-funding from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, a state agency that oversees water quality in Polk County. Multiple stormwater retention ponds were built utilizing an RP Funding Center parking lot across Harden Boulevard from the lake. It’s shoreline is also undergoing a wetland restoration/revegetation.  Future plans include pulling invasive plants like hydrilla from the lake, conducting a sediment nutrient study and identifying other areas for stormwater retrofits.

Lake Bonny, which lies between U.S. 98 and Southeastern University, has undergone a $280,000 surface water quality test, paid for by the Department of Environmental Protection. It has also undergone a wetland restoration and the identification of stormwater sources. Fletcher Park and the U.S. 98/Crystal Lake Road stormwater treatment facility underwent a retrofit, including adding a sediment sup and diversion weir and a wetland restoration. Plans are in place for a sediment nutrient study and the removal of invasive aquatic plants.

The funding also paid for a nutrient separating baffle box installation in the drainage swale, which uses a bio-activated media that uptakes unwanted nutrients.

“It has a 50-year life expectancy, so we’re expecting that to be a really great, great project,” Smith said.

Nearby Crystal Lake cleanup received a $380,000 grant from SWFWMD, with additional funding from the city and Polk County. A stormwater treatment pond was retrofitted and sediment nutrient sources were identified. The city is also conducting a sediment restoration feasibility study. Future projects include sediment nutrient treatment, aquatic plan restoration and more stormwater retrofits.  

Work to Lake Hollingsworth is also ongoing.  So far, the city has looked at stormwater and sediment sources, dredged and treated sediment, installed 11 pollution control devices, created a stormwater pond in the southern landings area, conducted a drainage improvement feasibility study on the south side of the lake and pulled out excessive aquatic plants. There are plans to identify additional areas for stormwater retrofits.

“Back about 20 years ago, there were some significant projects,” Smith noted. “The lake was dredged,  there was a sediment treatment, 11 pollution control devices — or PCDs — were installed on the west side of the lake, … a stormwater pond was constructed on the north side of the lake. And all of that helped the lake, but we still got a (total maximum daily load) at the end of the day anyway. So we are looking for additional projects to help with the stormwater, with the surface water quality, and we’re currently working on stormwater retrofits.”

Lake Parker, the largest water body in Lakeland at 2,300 acres, has undergone at least $280,000 work of studies and treatments, thanks to a grant from SWFWMD.  Those projects include a story of stormwater and sediment sources, a tributary swamp restoration, stormwater control and treatment, a north shoreline restoration, an eastside water quality improvement feasibility study, a stormwater pond expansion and retrofit, and a Teneroc flow-through water quality treatment study – including nutrient removal.

“We are looking at this project to see if there’s an opportunity to remove lake water from Lake Parker and circulate it through some existing mining ponds that are leftover and some wetlands, enhance the wetlands and find some nutrient removal there,” Smith said. “So it’s a pretty big undertaking, a large and complex project, but, you know, we’re doing the feasibility study to make sure that it’s feasible and … cost effective.”

Lake Bonnet is undergoing the most costly cleanup, thanks to the Bonnet Springs Park project.  The Federal Housing and Urban Development Department has given the city $43 million to clean up the area. It has already undergone an extensive transformation, including drainage basin flood hazard mitigation by improving critical stormwater infrastructure. Phase I of environmental requirements is set to begin this month with requests for queries and should take a year to 18 months to complete.  It will include environmental assessment and feasibility studies, along with design and permitting.  Phase II construction will begin as soon as the assessment is approved and is expected to take six to eight years to finish. The plans call for dredging the lake-bottom sediment, downstream stormwater control and flooding mitigation in nearby neighborhoods and wetlands restoration and aquatic plan revegetation.

Smith also obtained a $1.7 million grant to fully fund removing harmful algae, and a $100,000 grant to alleviate flooding.

“May Manor Mobile Home Park, in particular, experiences a significant amount of flooding during everyday afternoon storm events,” Smith said

Officials are studying Lake Morton’s stormwater and sediment sources and are also conducting restoration of its shoreline and aquatic plants.  But officials note that the home of the city’s famous swans is one of the most highly urbanized water bodies in the city – surrounded by homes and businesses and nestled at the bottom of numerous roadways, which all feed into the lake.  They have implemented “green” infrastructure, including tree wells, rain gardens and curb inlets.

Lake Mirror, the city’s oldest recreational feature, has also undergone stormwater and sediment source studies, along with a lake circulation study – with inconclusive results.  Aquatic plants have been added.  Like its nearest neighbor to the south, Lake Mirror is also highly urbanized and “green” infrastucture has been added.

The city and county are funding restoration of Lake Gibson. Invasive hydrilla has been removed, but has not been replaced yet with native plants. Smith explained that some plant life is necessary to create oxygen for fish. Plans are in the works to revegetate the lake, along with a stormwater retrofit and a nutrient source assessment.

“There were a couple of unfortunate aquatic plant treatments in the lake, completed by the county and then (Fish and Wildlife Commission) that put grass carp in the lake … grass carp are specifically used for addressing hydrilla,” Smith said. “So hydrilla is good and bad. Because it’s an invasive species and it overtakes the biology of the lake and basically takes over from the vegetation. But it’s a perfect water quality treatment plant, which is why a lot of people use it in our aquariums – because it keeps the water clean – and that’s how it got into our environment, people releasing it into surface water. So basically the hydrilla that was in the lake was completely eradicated. And the lake began to get impaired rather rapidly.”

A regional challenge

City Commissioner Sarah Roberts-McCarley asked what city officials’ relationship with their counterparts in Polk County is like and if there is any way the commission can help, noting that the county has dozens of large bodies of water they’re responsible to oversee.

“That relationship has actually improved significantly over the last few years,” Smith said. “So there was a time where they would come in and then enter the lake and we wouldn’t even know it. We’d go back in and treat a little bit of the lake and we got together. And it’s mostly the team here … formed an aquatic plant management group with Polk County and FWC, so the three agencies sit down together on a quarterly basis and we go over what’s the plan for treating the lakes so that we’re not doubling efforts. Sometimes we’ll combine efforts and complement each other and we make sure that things are being done in our lakes the way that we feel that they should be done.”

Commissioner Sam Simmons asked what Smith meant by the word nutrient.

“What’s the impact scientifically? What’s the impact of nutrients on our lakes?” Simmons asked.

“It’s the source of food for algae. So when you have too much nutrients, you get algae blooms, and then the algae blooms will contribute to degraded water quality,” Smith said. “And less oxygen available in the lake for fish to breathe can wreak havoc on the entire ecosystem.”

Priority Regulation Lakes and Their Projects

Lake Hunter

  • Co-funded by SWFWMD ($500,000 Grant)
  • Identified stormwater sources
  • Stormwater Treatment Pond & Wetland Restoration
  • Pond construction complete
  • Wetland restoration/revegetation in progress

Future Projects:

  • Identify additional stormwater retrofits
  • Invasive aquatic plant harvesting
  • Sediment nutrient study     

Lake Bonny

  • FDEP Surface Water Quality Grant $280,000
  • Identified stormwater sources
  • Fletcher Park Stormwater Treatment BMP Retrofit
    • Sediment sump and diversion weir to wetland
    • Wetland restoration, nutrient uptake
  • N. Crystal Lake & US Hwy 98 Stormwater BMP Retrofit
    • Nutrient separating baffle box
    • Bioactivated media underdrain
  • Lake Bonny “Island” Feasibility Study
    • Wetland restoration, nutrient uptake

Future Projects:

  • Sediment nutrient study
  • Invasive aquatic plant harvesting

Crystal Lake

  • $380,000 SWFWMD grants
  • Co-funded by City of Lakeland & Polk County and Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD)
  • Sediments ID’d as Nutrient Source
  • Sediment Restoration Feasibility Study
  • Stormwater Treatment Pond Retrofit

Future Projects:

  • Sediment nutrient treatment
  • Aquatic plant restoration
  • Stormwater BMPs and retrofits

Lake Hollingsworth

  • Stormwater and Sediment Sources
  • Significant Projects Completed:
    • Dredging & Sediment Treatment
    • 11 Pollution Control Devices (PCDs)
    • Southern Landings Stormwater Pond
  • Stormwater Retrofits
    • PCD Upgrades
    • Southern Landings Pond
  • South Hollingsworth Drainage Improvement Feasibility Study
  • Aquatic Plant Harvesting Plan

Future Projects:

  • Sediment nutrient amendment
  • Identify additional stormwater retrofits

Lake Parker

  • $280,000 SWFWMD Grant
  • Stormwater and Sediment Sources
  • Tributary Swamp Restoration Project
    • Stormwater control & treatment
  • North Shore Shoreline Restoration Project
    • Shoreline stabilization and erosion repair
    • Aquatic plant restoration
  • East Side Water Quality Improvement Feasibility Study
    • Wetland restoration, expansion, and circulation of lake water for nutrient removal
  • Stormwater Pond Expansion (Pond G)
  • Stormwater Pond Retrofit (East Bay)
  • Teneroc Flow-Through Water Quality Treatment Feasibility Study
    • Wetland restoration, expansion and circulation of lake water for nutrient removal

Lake Bonnet

  • $42.9M Grant HUD Grant 
  • Sediment and Stormwater Sources
  • Drainage Basin Flood Hazard Mitigation 
    • Improve critical stormwater infrastructure
    • Reduce flooding
  • Phase I – Environmental Requirements
    • RFQ Submittals Due May 31, 2023
    • 12-18 months to complete
    • Environmental Assessment & Feasibility Studies
    • Design & Permitting
  • Phase II – Construction
    • Start as soon as Environmental Assessment Approved
    • 6 – 8 years to complete
    • Lake Bottom Sediment Dredging
    • Downstream Stormwater Control & Flood Mitigation
    • Wetland Restoration & Aquatic Plant Revegetation

Lake Morton

  • Stormwater and Sediment Source
  • Shoreline Restoration
  • Aquatic Plant Restoration
  • BMP Alternative Analysis Study
    • Highly urbanized
    • Green infrastructure BMPs
      • Tree wells
      • Rain gardens
      • Curb inlets

Future Projects:

  • Sediment Nutrient Amendment Feasibility Study & Permitting

Lake Mirror

  • Stormwater and Sediment Sources
  • Lake Circulation Study
    • Results inconclusive
  • Aquatic Plant Revegetation
  • BMP Alternative Analysis Study
    • Highly urbanized
    • Green infrastructure BMPs
      • Tree wells
      • Rain gardens
      • Curb inlets

Future Projects:

  • Sediment Nutrient Amendment Feasibility Study & Permitting

Lake Gibson

  • Co-funded by City of Lakeland and Polk County
  • Recent Impairment
    • Loss of aquatic vegetation
    • Stormwater inputs

Future Projects:

  • Nutrient Source Assessment Study
  • Aquatic vegetation restoration design
  • Existing stormwater BMP retrofit

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Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at or 863-272-9250.

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