RUSKIN — The birds have owned it for decades.
Now, after a $12 million investment by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud, they have to share.
From a vantage point high above the tree line spreads a vista that includes three of Tampa Bay's most familiar landmarks: dead ahead, the St. Petersburg skyline; to the left, the Sunshine Skyway bridge; and to the right, the jagged silhouette of downtown Tampa on a distant horizon.
Soon, human visitors who trek up an earthen observation mound 55 feet high will see what birds at the Rock Ponds rookery on the Hillsborough-Manatee county line have long enjoyed.
And at the foot of the mound, they'll see something closer to what the animals' avian ancestors saw more than 75 years ago: a delicate tapestry of land and water that requires little human input to support life.
"The idea is to set it free and let it do its thing," said Brandt Henningsen, chief environmental scientist with Swiftmud's Surface Water Improvement and Management program, or SWIM.
Henningsen and program engineer Nancy Norton are overseeing Tampa Bay's latest and largest coastal restoration project. Together with construction workers, heavy equipment and hundreds of volunteers, the two project managers have transformed former farm fields, shell mines and water-filled rock pits into a series of shallow ponds and lagoons that fill and drain with the rains and tides. The natural wash boosts habitat potential for wading birds, fish, crabs, oysters, alligators and other aquatic creatures. In addition, palm tree hammocks and pine forests make a home for bobcats, deer and coyotes.
When construction at the 1,043-acre project ends this month, Rock Ponds will become the biggest piece of a 4,600-acre puzzle the SWIM program restored for Mother Nature. It will likely remain the biggest, Henningsen said, because there are no more coastal land parcels that size to restore, not even on preservationists' wish list.
As with other restored parcels, volunteers have played a big role. In November, nearly 300 volunteers set a record by planting 40,000 plugs of marsh grass in wetlands on the site.
But the public wielded influence long before that. In the 1970s, then-owner Tampa Electric Co. had plans to build a power plant overlooking Cockroach Bay, a largely unspoiled water body that laps the Rock Ponds site.
"The public showed up and said, 'We don't want a power plant at Cockroach Bay,' " Henningsen recalled. "So it didn't happen."
In 2003 and '04, the water management district used land preservation funds to buy more than 2,500 acres south of Cockroach Bay Road. Hillsborough County's taxpayer-funded Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program kicked in half of the $4.3 million purchase price.
Today, the Rock Ponds site accounts for 16 miles of Tampa Bay shoreline restored through almost 100 improvement and management projects, which extend from Tampa's McKay Bay intermittently south to Terra Ceia Bay in Manatee County.
Nearly 1 million upland and wetland plants have been installed at Rock Ponds alone, and 1.6 million cubic yards of dirt have been dug up and moved to shape the natural wetland system.
The payoff for the public is cleaner beaches, better boating experiences and the likelihood of catching more fish or seeing more wildlife, he said.
"Government can't do it all," said Tampa Bay Watch founder Peter Clark said. "By inviting the public to come down and take a role in these projects helps them to understand the value and importance of restoration projects."
At Rock Ponds, the public also will be rewarded with additional canoe and kayak passageways and two observation mounds at opposite ends of the site, Henningsen said.
There's already plenty to see. Mullet splash in the newly constructed lagoon. Roseate spoonbills forage in the ponds. Henningsen recently photographed a nest with 21 baby alligators. And Rock Ponds gave the 28-year veteran a glimpse of underwater life he had not experienced before.
"For the first time in my life," he said, "I've seen seagrass flowering."
Contact Susan Marschalk Green at [email protected]