For more than 20 years, Palm Beach County has worked to improve Lake Worth Lagoon -- a 20-mile body of water stretching from North Palm Beach to Boynton Beach. It’s the county’s largest estuary and also infamous for its polluted past.
The county hosted its third lagoon boat tour in late January to showcase several projects improving the lagoon and helping the county’s ecotourism.
About 60 people came aboard a large charter boat called Majestic Princess II -- most of them legislators who funded restoration projects for Lake Worth Lagoon. It’s also sometimes referred to as the “intracoastal.”
The charter boat took passengers to see improvements Palm Beach County has made on the lagoon using its yearly budget of $3 to $4 million. Shelley Vana is the county’s mayor and was on the charter boat.
"This is a very big part of Palm Beach County," Mayor Vana said. "It's one of the things that defines the nature of who we are, and so we want to make sure that as caretakers of the environment, we do the right thing."
The “right thing” means restoring the lagoon’s water and aquatic life.
"A lot of our canals empty [into] here, so there's a lot of stuff in that water, either silt or things that are not good for the lagoon," Vana said.
But this is nothing new. Lake Worth Lagoon has a long history of pollution.
"I one time read a Palm Beach Post article -- it was actually printed during World War II -- and that article talked about the sewage smell that was coming off the lagoon was the reason nobody ever wanted to be on the lagoon," says Rob Robbins, director of the county's environmental resources management.
He says that in the early 1900s, when the lagoon was first developed, the shoreline was filled in and seawalls were put up.
"All of that ability to convert sunlight energy to food energy was lost when the seawalls were put up," says Robbins. "That's why we're installing islands to replicate that function and those islands are offshore of the seawalls."
There are several dozen islands right now and they are working great, Robbins says. But there’s another problem -- polluted storm water is spilling into the lagoon from roads and parking lots.
"Some of what we’re doing is actually installing storm water treatment areas underground and treating water before it even hits the lagoon," says Robbins.
He says it's the county’s mission to get the best water quality so that a healthy habitat can form, and ultimately bring fisheries into the lagoon.
"You're gonna hear stories of snook, redfish, and trout being caught in areas of the lagoon where they haven't been seen in generations," says Robbins. "That's important to bring fisheries back to the lagoon."
The county is currently working on at least eight projects to improve the lagoon by restoring seagrass, mangroves, salt marshes and oyster reefs.
And it seems to be working. Large birds called oystercatchers have been nesting in one of the restored islands. They weren’t known to breed in the county until about two years ago.
Just a few weeks ago, bonefish were found around one of the islands.
"We saw two juveniles, so they weren’t adults that got lost and came here," Robbins said. "They're juveniles that are spawning here. That's very encouraging."
Vana says there’s now a lot of activity on the lagoon.
"We have the holiday parades, people go out on weekends," the mayor said. "And then we have the ecotourism."
Just past John D. Macarthur State Park on the northern end of the lagoon, cars are pulled over on Burnt Bridge. People are launching their vessels into the water. Locals Brittany Traynor and Parker Haywood just got back from paddleboarding.
"This is our third time, but they were all within the last month, ‘cause once we came out, we really liked it," said Traynor. "We saw a manatee and two stingrays, a bunch of birds, a bunch of fish. The manatee was the coolest."
Haywood said the lagoon is shallow enough to walk around in.
"A bunch of mangroves all around, about four or five islands that you can go into, there’s trails inside the islands for paddleboarders or kayaks," he said.
Michael St. Juste was also off to the side of Burnt Bridge. He works for the water sports company called "Visit Palm Beach” and was waiting for a small group of kayakers to come back from Lake Worth Lagoon.
"We do it about two to three times a month," said St. Juste. "Groups ranging from three people to 30 people, 40 people."
He says he’s happy the county has kept up the restoration.
"As long as they're preserving it and keeping it natural, it does help us out a lot," said St. Juste.
You can watch some Lake Worth Lagoon ecotourism activities below.