By KEVIN BRADY
A massive project to restore wetlands in Gibsonston should be completed next month.
Almost a decade in the making, the program started last summer to restore mangroves at two plots along U.S. Highway 41.
“We should be finished on schedule next month,” said David Townsend, an assistant vice president at Mosaic.
Work on restoring 10 acres of mangroves and adding new oyster reefs, part one of the project, started in July at Giant’s Camp, a stone’s throw from the Alafia River Bridge on U.S. Highway 41. Part two, a similar project just north of the Giant’s Camp on U.S. Highway 41, began in the fall.
Mosaic, the world’s largest phosphate company, is footing the bill for the project as part of a compensation package the firm worked out with the federal government after a dike at its Riverview plant broke and contaminated local waters in 2004.
Heavy rains from Hurricane Frances that year broke the back of the company’s dike, sending 60,000 gallons of contaminated water into Archie Creek, killing vegetation and fish. The creek flows into Tampa Bay.
Mosaic has since spent $30 million to improve water-storage capacity at the Riverview fertilizer plant. “We can now handle up to 80 inches of rain,” Townsend said.
One of the largest agro-chemical companies in the world, with mines in Central Florida and North Carolina, Mosaic provides fertilizer to farmers in 40 countries. Most of the fertilizer used in the U.S. comes from Florida phosphate mines, much of it mined by Mosaic in Polk County.
The restoration project includes digging a 1,500-foot-long by 50-foot-wide channel through the mangrove habitat, breathing new life into the mangroves. The mangroves are currently cut off from any real tidal flow by a marina built in the 1950s and since abandoned.
Tidal flows are the lungs of mangroves; without it, the plants grow in on each other, eventually leading to a “mangrove heart attack” that kills the mangroves and turns them into mudflats. One acre of the property, clearly visible from overhead photos, has already turned into a mudflat.
“Mangroves are the heartbeat of Tampa Bay,” said Roy Lewis III, president of Lewis Environmental Services, the Riverview company that designed the restoration project. “It’s where juvenile fish hang out and mature and move into the bay. Tampa Bay has lost 40 percent of its mangroves over the last 100 years, and, as a direct result, commercial and recreational fishing have declined.”
The restoration project will bring new life to the mangroves, securing their future for hundreds of years, Lewis said.
“When it’s done, there will be four tides a day flushing through the property, and when the tide is ripping, you will see a significant amount of fish coming through,” Lewis said.
Reopening the mangroves to the natural flow of the tide will also involve dredging a 1,000-foot- long and 5-foot-deep channel in the existing waterway, bringing a healthy flow of water into the area. Engineers also built a bridge over the new channel.
While the tides will breathe new life into the mangroves, the new oyster beds, also part of the restoration project, will help clean that water before it enters the area.
Some 5,650 square feet of rock will be used in the project for the oyster beds.