TAMPA — Until recently, when golfers played the course at MacDill Air Force Base, they had to spritz on bug spray and hope mosquitos living in the stands of Brazilian pepper plants dotting the greens weren’t too hungry.
Thanks to a habitat restoration project, all the players need to do now is beware of the young animals and plants making a comeback on the 70-year-old military base.
“We were thrilled at how quickly everything seemed to thrive here,” said Nancy Norton, an engineer with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud.
Last month, Swiftmud engineers and biologists completed the third and final phase of a long-term project to restore wetlands at MacDill, along the southern tip of Tampa’s Interbay Peninsula near the base’s golf course.
Workers dug and expanded water channels, removed invasive plants — the exotic Brazilian pepper, especially — and planted native species in an effort to improve storm water retention and restore low salinity nursery habitats, said Norton, the project manager.
And so far, it has been a success, she said.
The new sea grasses and mangroves that were planted are thriving, and the project scientists have spotted birds, baby shrimp, fingerling snook, blue crabs and other animals that have returned to the new and improved wetland areas, she said.
Those birds and fish are feeding on all the mosquitos and their larvae, making golf on the base much more pleasant.
“It’s really made a tremendous difference,” said Lou Harris, director of MacDill’s Bay Palms Golf Course.
The project was part of Swiftmud’s Surface Water Improvement and Management Program, also called SWIM. The program was created in 1987 to protect and restore water habitats in Swiftmud’s 16-county region. Tampa Bay tops the program’s list of “priority” water bodies, and the organization is leading more than 65 projects to improve water quality and restore sea life in the bay.
SWIM has restored hundreds of acres of habitat on MacDill Air Force Base alone in the past 20 years, said Brandt Henningsen, the program’s chief environmental scientist.
The first two phases of the MacDill project were completed in the 1990s, he said, but the final phase was put on hold after Sept. 11, 2001, when security was heightened at all of the country’s military bases. In July 2012, scientists from Swiftmud were able to begin work on the last segment — which involved 110 acres and cost about $2.25 million, he said.
“We were able to restart our phase three project and make it happen,” Henningsen said.
Workers created and expanded water bodies on the base that link together, Henningsen said. A channel then was created to connect those bodies to Tampa Bay, which allows tide waters to balance the salinity in fish nursery habitats, he said. And as runoff from the base drains down through the chain, sediment settles to the bottom of the ponds and native Florida plants soak up the excess nutrients that otherwise would end up in the bay, Henningsen said.
“This project actually has put back a sizable amount of acreage,” he said.
Workers also created sand dunes to prevent erosion along the shoreline, relocated some mangrove trees and sable palm trees and gave the wildlife at MacDill an “environmental boost.”
“In the long term, this will probably become a mangrove forest,” Henningsen said about a new marsh that was previously a “forest” of the nuisance, red-berried Brazilian pepper plants.
Officials at MacDill went out of their way to accommodate the biologists and engineers working on the restoration, Norton said. They closed down the golf course — the closest area to the wetlands project — on certain days so the scientists could complete their work.
The MacDill project is a good example of how well two government agencies — the U.S. Air Force and the water management district — can work together, Henningsen said.
“You don’t tend to think of a military base of being very ‘environmental,’” he said.
But, he said, that isn’t the case for MacDill anymore.