Ross Dickerson, manager of Hillsborough County's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program (ELAPP), Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacey White, Brandt Henningsen and Nancy Norton of SWIM stand atop "Mount Rock Ponds." Photo by Vicki Parsons.

Rock Ponds sets record for planting

More than 400 volunteers set a new record for planting marsh grasses at the single largest parcel in a 20-mile stretch of restored coastal ecosystems along Tampa Bay’s eastern shore late last year at the Rock Ponds site, located just north of the Manatee County line and south of Cockroach Bay.

Top: Ross Dickerson, manager of Hillsborough County’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program (ELAPP), Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacey White, Brandt Henningsen and Nancy Norton of SWIM stand atop “Mount Rock Ponds.” Photo by Vicki Parsons.
Named for the borrow pits scattered across the site, the 2,543-acre parcel was jointly purchased by Hillsborough County and the Southwest Florida Water Management District in 2004. “It’s the largest restoration project on coastal Tampa Bay – and it’s likely to stay that way,” says Brandt Henningsen, chief environmental scientist for the district’s Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) program. “There isn’t another piece of land this size still available along the bay.”

Restoration officially began in 2012 on the upland habitats, although a team including Henningsen, Nancy Norton, SWIM’s engineer, and Scheda Ecological Associates spent nearly two years mapping the parcel, identifying habitat that survived mining and farm operations, and planning a mosaic of habitats.

More than 400 volunteers dug holes and planted marsh grasses on sloping shorelines at Rock Ponds. Photo by Peter Clark.

More than 400 volunteers dug holes and planted marsh grasses on sloping shorelines at Rock Ponds. Photo by Peter Clark.

“We looked carefully at what we could save, including some existing hardwood hammocks and wetlands and identified potential sources for both fresh and saltwater,” Norton said. Borrow pits near the bay were essentially blocked from tidal flow and suffered from algal blooms nearly every summer. The northern pit was so deep that few fish were found, even when it was drained as part of the restoration effort. Other parts of the site were so overgrown with Brazilian pepper, cogon grass or Australian pine that walking through them was practically impossible.

Even so, the shallower pits along the bay had become one of the most important nesting locations for many types of birds in the Tampa Bay region, including reddish egrets, the rarest wading bird in the U.S. The restoration was timed so that it took place only when nesting birds weren’t present, Norton adds.

This is the second year that Tampa Bay Watch, with funding through the Tampa Bay Environmental Fund, has tried to set a record for salt marsh plantings. In 2014, they fell short because too few volunteers were available to harvest the plants from a donor site at Port Manatee.  Still, the results of those efforts are amazing. Once-bare shorelines scraped by bulldozers to precise elevations are now covered in lush growth with marsh grasses starting to grow together. Red, white and black mangroves have sprouted from propagules that floated through newly opened tidal channels, and fiddler crabs dance from one hiding spot to another.

Volunteers take a break from planting marsh grasses. Photo by Vicki Parsons.

Volunteers take a break from planting marsh grasses. Photo by Vicki Parsons.

With a high point of 17 feet above sea level at U.S. 41, Rock Ponds features multiple habitats, including freshwater lagoons fed by Piney Point Creek that cascade into low-salinity intertidal lagoons that are critical to the life cycles of many fish, including snook and tarpon. It’s also designed to accommodate sea level rise over the next 100 years.

Rock Ponds should be complete early in 2016. The district and county are working together to develop passive recreational facilities including parking lots and restrooms. In the meantime, kayakers can paddle the new lagoon at the northeast side of the property with access through Cockroach Bay and up Andrews Creek.

“If Rock Ponds is anything like Cockroach Bay, one of the most popular features will be the two overlook ‘mountains’ we were able to build with extra soil from the excavations,” Henningsen said. “On a clear day, you’ll be able to see everything from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and Tropicana Field to downtown Tampa.”

Rock Ponds By the Numbers

645 acres — Upland Enhancement/Restoration

398 acres — Wetland Enhancement/Restoration

1.6 square miles — Total Restoration

16.2 miles — Length of New Shoreline. Equal to a round-trip on Howard Frankland Bridge between Tampa and St. Petersburg

972,127 — Total Number of Plants Installed

1,600,000 cubic yards — Total Volume of Dirt Moved. Equal to a 611-foot stack of dirt on a football field (the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is 470 feet high)

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