Diverse Stormwater Program Keeps Lakeland's Lakes Healthy

Florida community takes a multifaceted approach to ensuring the health of its lakes.

Diverse Stormwater Program Keeps Lakeland's Lakes Healthy

Lakes and Stormwater Division staff includes (from left on airboat) environmental tech Amy Harrison, senior environmental specialist Jennifer Schilling, support specialist Christina Harvey, environmental tech II Elias Sierra and maintenance foreman Cody O’Gorman; on shore from left: Manager Laurie Smith, environmental tech Alton Johnson, maintenance specialist Ryan Pementil, environmental specialist Sandra Pope and engineer Cole Edwards. (Photography by Emily Plank)

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Tourists, snowbirds and residents all love the lakes in Lakeland, Florida.

They marvel at the swans, the boating, the water skiing and kayaking, trails, picnicking and wildlife viewing available on and around the city’s 38 named lakes.

“Our lakes contribute significantly to our community through increased land values, recreational activities and tourism,” says Laurie Smith, manager of the city’s Lakes and Stormwater Division.

The division, which was created in 1999, is tasked with protecting the quality of these lakes. Smith’s team includes Jennifer Schilling, senior environmental specialist, and staff members Sandra Pope, Cole Edwards, Cody O’Gorman and Elias Sierra.

“Our priority is to preserve and enhance the city’s stormwater systems, surface waters and natural resources. These objectives benefit the city’s citizens and community as a whole.”


Northerners may know Lakeland primarily as the winter home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team, but the community is much more. Located about 40 miles east of Tampa on Interstate 4, the city is home to more than 106,000 people, a historic downtown, several colleges and universities, and the lakes.

Nearly 10% of the city’s 67-square-mile area is made up of surface waters, ranging from Lake Parker at 2,550 acres to many smaller bodies of water, some of which are old phosphate mine pits that have filled with water. Other major lakes include Hollingsworth, Morton, Mirror and Gibson. Altogether, the lakes comprise three different watersheds.

The Lakeland Lakes and Stormwater Division, winner of an excellence award in 2018 from the Florida Stormwater Association, has an annual budget of $6 million, supported entirely from a stormwater utility fee of $8 per equivalent residential unit. The division also responds to complaints and enforces stormwater discharge regulations.

The program is active and holistic, Smith says, and is focused on maintaining and improving stormwater systems, reducing stormwater pollution and restoring the surface waters and natural resources of the city. The division is responsible for implementing the city’s NPDES permit to discharge stormwater to the municipal stormwater system.

Specific elements of the program include street sweeping; drainage system construction, maintenance and repair; water quality, bioassessment and lake level monitoring; flood plain and aquatic vegetation management; stormwater pollution prevention and treatment; and watershed planning and compliance.

To support the effort, Lakeland conducts a vibrant public outreach and education program to inform citizens of the sources of stormwater pollution and how to prevent it.

Clean sweep

While nearly every municipality in the country sweeps its streets, few are as aggressive as Lakeland. “It’s a robust program that ensures every curb-mile of street is swept every two weeks,” Smith says. In addition to designated routes throughout the city, the streets around the city’s lakes are swept weekly. The downtown area is swept nightly.

One sweeper route is dedicated solely to the lake basins to reduce potential pollutants.

Lakeland uses a fleet of Elgin vacuum sweepers and one Elgin mechanical sweeper.

“It’s made a huge difference,” Smith says. “We have clean streets, and we sweep and collect over 2,500 tons of trash a year.”

That trash contains nutrients, debris and sediment that otherwise would get into the city’s storm drain system, and eventually the lakes.

In 2016, the city conducted a study aimed at identifying time, location and frequency adjustments that could improve the effectiveness of street sweeping. One important finding was that significant reductions in phosphorus, nitrogen and suspended solids from the tree canopy were realized when these areas were swept more frequently.

Better drainage

To keep its storm drain system operating efficiently, Lakeland employs a thorough program to inspect, maintain and repair its drainage and conveyance system. It does nearly all the work itself through an in-house drainage team.

“We have all the equipment and tools we need,” Smith says. “We video (CUES video inspection system) portions of our storm system every day, evaluating the integrity of the pipes and identifying areas in need of repair or replacement.” The focus is on prevention rather than costly response to emergencies.

The system includes 22 pollution control devices at the end of pipes. These are underground vaults equipped with baffles, and they need regular cleaning. The Lakeland team uses Vactor trucks to vacuum each pollution control device once a month.

Currently, Lakeland is constructing a new stormwater detention pond, using an outside contractor for the work. Smith notes that the pollution control devices associated with the pond will have clear plexiglass tops — or roofs — allowing the public to observe what goes on inside the structures, furthering their understanding of the city’s pollution control effort.

A flood plain manager ensures that FEMA flood control guidelines and requirements are incorporated into development plans for new construction or property retrofits. 

Lake levels and quality

The objective of the Lakeland stormwater control program of course is to maintain the water quality of the lakes, making sure they are healthy for public use and enjoyment.

Smith’s team maintains a meticulous lake level monitoring program, headed by O’Gorman. Flood control gates are situated at 10 locations throughout the system, and they are raised or lowered manually to manage the level of the water in the lakes. Most of the lakes are connected, so it’s important they drain properly from one to another and ultimately to the system outfall.

“We try to keep the levels high in summer to accommodate boating, water skiing and other activities,” Smith says. “On the other hand, during rainy seasons, lake levels are managed such that there is ‘enough room’ in the lakes for the precipitation to run off and avoid flooding.

“In summer, we’re constantly opening and closing the gates,” he adds. “It’s a full-time job, with backup help on weekends.”

Smith says last summer was particularly critical because of heavy rainfall that totaled more than 60 inches.

“We’re really careful managing our lake levels,” she says. “Our field people have access to data via their hand-held tablets. They need to fully understand how the water is moving. It’s really an art.”

Water quality is just as important as lake levels. In conjunction with Polk County and the city of Lakeland, the stormwater team monitors surface water quality in both the natural lakes and those formed in the old mining pits. The quarterly sampling program produces data that guides surface water quality assessment and restoration plans. The city has prioritized several lakes with total maximum daily load requirements for restoration

“We analyze for trends and to identify issues,” Smith says. Nutrients — especially phosphorus — are the primary concern, and she’s pleased with the progress. “In the last few years, we’ve witnessed increasing surface water quality improvements. It’s nice to see.”

Weeds be gone

As picturesque and protected as they are, the city’s lakes haven’t escaped the frustrating problem facing lakes around the country — aquatic vegetation. The stormwater division is attacking this problem with chemical, mechanical and biological approaches.

“We have invasive species in the lakes,” Smith explains. “There are three main types: hydrilla, water lettuce and hyacinths. The latter two are floating plants. Hydrilla, a rooted plant that grows in water and chokes out other vegetation, is one of the most invasive aquatic species in Florida and the Southern U.S.

“All three outcompete our native species and can overtake the environment if we don’t take action.”

She says herbicides are used only where appropriate. The division has also recently purchased a harvesting boat from Inland Lake Harvesters for mechanical removal of the plants, enabling Lakeland to reduce its dependence on herbicide spraying.

And, she adds, the division has had good luck with grass carp, which she says “go to town” eating the hydrilla.

“We’ve released a sterilized species of the carp so they can’t reproduce (and impact the local fish population), and we introduced them in lakes to get rid of the hydrilla.”

The stormwater division also promotes propagation of native plants like eelgrass.

Looking ahead

The Lakeland Lakes and Stormwater Division recently completed a comprehensive lake management plan that provides a pathway for assessment, restoration and maintaining priority lakes in the city in the years ahead.

“Our lakes are not necessarily natural any longer,” Smith says. “They are urban.”

The city of Lakeland was settled in 1875, she notes, and saw significant growth during the early and mid part of the last century, at a time prior to the initiation of stormwater regulations. 

“As a result, some of the stormwater systems are in need of repair and replacement as it reaches the end of its life expectancy. In other areas of the city, development occurred rapidly and prior to stormwater regulations so the existing systems may not be adequate to handle runoff from larger storms.”

At the same time, she says, people want to be able to use the lakes for recreation and enjoyment.

“It’s a huge challenge to create a system that meets everyone’s needs. We need to restore our lakes to a more naturalized system while in a growing urban environment.”


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