Jungle Lake's Floating Wetland Is Green Clean Machine - The Gabber Newspaper

Visitors to Walter Fuller Park in Jungle Terrace will notice something new in Jungle Lake: an island! But this is no enchanted isle rising from the depths; it’s a floating wetland: a lean, green, lake-cleaning machine.

Jungle Lake looks like an urban oasis, frequented by wading and diving birds. But it plays an important role in local hydrology, explains Dr. Ed Carlson, President of the Jungle Terrace Civic Association (JTCA). It drains a 470-acre swath of St. Petersburg, catching contaminants that run off streets, parking lots, and lawns. Its waters then flow to Boca Ciega Bay, a half a mile away.  4.5 Grinding Wheel

Jungle Lake's Floating Wetland Is Green Clean Machine - The Gabber Newspaper

In 2015 and 2018, Carlson adds, the lake was contaminated with wastewater spills from the nearby Northwest Water Reclamation Plant. 

There were clear signs that something was fishy — and not in a good way — with the lake. Seven times throughout the past few years, it had become overgrown with water lettuce, indicating a high nutrient concentration in the water. Worse still, this floating fluorescence could also cause oxygen levels in the lake to drop, endangering other plants and animals that called Jungle Lake home. 

The City’s attempts to remove water lettuce mechanically were only temporarily effective, and stripped other needed plants from the lake’s edges. Controlling the lettuce with pesticides lead to fish kills. There had to be a better way.

That’s where Stewards of Our Urban Lakes (SoUL) came in. The St. Pete-based nonprofit, founded in 2021, focuses on preserving and rejuvenating urban waterways. SoUL President Jim Bays, an experienced environmental scientist, thought he had a remedy for Jungle Lake: floating wetland islands. 

Environmental scientists have known for decades that natural wetlands can improve water quality. Plants remove excess nitrogen, phosphate, and suspended solids (sand, sediment, plankton and other materials that impact water clarity) from runoff. Floating wetlands mimic natural wetlands by providing a surface — usually, a durable, recycled plastic mat — for hundreds of plants whose roots grow directly into the water. These “riverponic” plants absorb harmful nutrients and provide additional wildlife habitat. They can also be installed in spots too deep for typical wetland plants to grow.  A 2020 study suggested that one acre of floating wetland can absorb the nutrient pollution generated by as much as 15 acres of urban development.

With the additional support of Keep Pinellas Beautiful and Florida Representative Linda Chaney, JTCA launched a three-year plan to restore the lake. Throughout summer 2023, volunteers “waded in” to log more than 300 hours of maintenance. They “hand-weeded” water lettuce and replanted key sections of lake’s edge with 600 native Florida plants. They also launched a “demonstration” floating wetland: a dining table sized collection of plants anchored along the lake’s southernmost channel. By September, it was flourishing.

Building on this initial success, JCTA began raising funds for a larger installation this fall. The 25-by-25-foot “island” arrived in pieces, at a cost of slightly more than $8,000. SoUL volunteers unrolled and assembled sections, nestled in 540 plants, and towed the island into the open water in the center of the lake. It was, as Carlson quipped in a recent JCTA newsletter, the perfect Christmas present for Jungle Lake.

Beemats — the New Smyrna Beach company that created the floating wetlands — will trim back growth and roots three times a year. This not only prolongs the life of the island, but allows the company to gauge the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients it absorbs. 

In the following phases of the plan, JCTA hopes to see several more floating wetlands installed. They’ll plan to seek grant funding to do so, says Carlson. 

For now, at the heart of one of the largest and most popular parks in St. Petersburg, Jungle Lake sets an intriguing example of how cities can balance urban growth and natural resource management. But that’s not the only reason it’s inspiring.

“I love nature,” says JCTA volunteer Leilani Looker, gazing out over the water. “I love the beauty of this lake.”

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Filed Under: News Tagged With: Florida environment, St. Petersburg

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Jungle Lake's Floating Wetland Is Green Clean Machine - The Gabber Newspaper

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