RUSKIN — Over the next two years, more than 1,000 acres of former farmland along the Tampa Bay shoreline will be transformed into a flourishing lagoon and freshwater wetlands, flanked by oak and pine trees.
The project, which sits just north of the Manatee County line, will be the largest coastal ecosystem restoration project undertaken along the banks of the bay and will likely be the last large-scale reclamation of its kind. In its entirety, the property is 2,500 acres.
There just aren’t any more massive chunks of property like that available right along the water, said Brandt Henningsen, the project manager for the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Surface Water Improvement and Management program, or SWIM.
As if on cue Monday morning, a flock of white pelicans soared overhead as dignitaries from the state, county and the water management district kicked off the Rock Ponds Ecosystem Restoration project.
Once completed, it will link nearly 20 miles of conservation lands to the north, most of which has been restored through partnerships like this one, between Hillsborough County and the water management district, known as Swiftmud.
The project is expected to cost $11.9 million, with half of the money coming from the state and half from Swiftmud and from various grants.
The partner agencies spent about 20 years restoring Cockroach Bay Preserve to the north, a spot now rife with butterflies, wading birds, raptors, game fish like snook and redfish and even the occasional bobcat.
This property, which got its name from a handful of pits created by the commercial excavation of shell rock and sand, is home to Tampa Bay’s second-largest waterbird rookery. The freshwater wetlands planned for this site will give the birds a nearby food source for their babies during nesting season.
“Thirteen species of colonial waterbirds nest there, including the reddish egret, which is a really big deal,” said Ann Paul, Tampa Bay Area regional coordinator for Audubon Florida. “Herons, egrets, ibis, cormorants, and anhinga all raise their young there.”
To create the wetlands, Henningsen said, a deep, nearly lifeless borrow pit will be filled with dirt pulled from elsewhere on the property, turning it into shallow bird-friendly habitat with a meandering shoreline.
Those wetlands, along with Piney Point Creek, which runs near the property’s west end, will connect to a large lagoon, which will then connect to Tampa Bay.
The bay, itself, will benefit from the restoration because water coming off area roads and developed lands will be filtered before it reaches open water, through the series of wetlands and the lagoon. The lagoon will also become a nursery ground for young fish, crabs and shrimp.
About two years ago, some 264 acres of the 2,500-acre site were planted with long-leaf pines, saw palmettos and other native upland plant species, said Nancy Norton, a Swiftmud engineer and co-project manager.
“Beginning Dec. 1, the contractor began taking out all the (non-native) Brazilian peppers all the way to the mangroves. Once that work is complete, excavators will create the intertidal estuary connection,” Norton said.
The county and Swiftmud purchased the property from Tampa Electric Company in 2003 for $3.5 million, using funds from the state’s Florida Forever program and from the county’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP.
Since then, scientists and engineers have spent years mapping habitat, conducting an archaeological survey and studying how the property looked before it was converted in to farm fields.