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Tampa Bay's largest ecosytem restoration project kicks off near Ruskin

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image Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard Jr. speaks during the kickoff event for the Rock Ponds Ecosystem Restoration Project near Ruskin. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Once completed, the project will link nearly 20 miles of conservation land north and south of Cockroach Bay.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, along with state and local officials, kicked off on Monday what is heralded as the Tampa Bay area’s largest ecosystem restoration project, known as the Rock Ponds Ecosystem Restoration.
Located  near Ruskin, south of Cockroach Bay and just off  County Line Road, along the Hillsborough and Manatee counties line, the multiphase project is an initiative to restore various coastal habitats for Tampa Bay. The project is part of a Surface Water Improvement and Management program that has already been performed on the north side of Cockroach Bay.

The project is unique not only for its size and scope but also for the preservation of a large parcel of coastal land, an increasingly rare commodity as Florida continues to develop.

The 779-acre project, part of a larger, 2,500-acre project, will include 381 acres of restored coastal uplands and 398 acres of restored freshwater and estuarine wetlands.  The restoration is intended to offset habitat losses suffered throughout Tampa Bay, and thus provide space for the public and for the thousands of coastal species that live within the Tampa Bay ecosystem.

This is a wonderful effort by local partners,” said Robert Beltran, executive director of Southwest Florida Water Management District.  “We have worked to find a balance between human and environmental needs.”

Beltran spoke about the thousands of acres that have been restored in greater Tampa Bay over the years, and of the enormous scope of the current project. “One point six million cubic yards of dirt will be moved in this project,” he said. “That is enough to stretch from Miami all the way to Tampa.”

Once a series of pits created by the commercial excavation of shells and sand, the land will be restored to provide public access and a home for thousands of species of wildlife.

Attending the kickoff event on Monday were Herschel T. Vinyard Jr., secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection; Carlos Beruff, the Southwest Florida Water Management District board chairman; and Jack Carlisle, director of the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department.

The event also included a symbolic tree planting, with the commemorative tree donated by Florida Natives Nursery.

The nearly $12 million project is being funded from state grants, as well as grants from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and other sources.  Once complete, the project will connect nearly 20 continuous miles of conservation land north and south of Cockroach Bay in the Ruskin area.

Financial support was provided by the Gardinier Trust Fund, via the Florida and Hillsborough County departments of environmental protection, the Hillsborough County Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, and the Tampa Bay Environmental Fund / National Fish and Wildlife Foundation as well as from state funds from various trust funds.

The event nearly coincided with World Wetlands Day,  Feb. 2,  first so proclaimed in 1997.

The Rock Ponds Ecosystem Restoration Project is located at 4480 County Line Road, just south of Ruskin.

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