RUSKIN — On a postcard-perfect blue-sky day, with a flock of white pelicans taking flight from a nearby forest, a collection of local and state officials gathered Monday to salute the official start of the biggest environmental restoration project ever undertaken around Tampa Bay.
The project, known as the Rock Ponds Ecosystem Restoration, covers more than 1,000 acres and has been in the works for more than a decade, according to Jennette Seachrist of the Southwest Florida Water Management District — Swiftmud for short.
Prior owners of the property on the Hillsborough-Manatee county line ditched and drained its wetlands to make it suitable for agriculture, she explained. Over the next two years, Swiftmud and its partners at the Hillsborough County Commission will spend about $11 million to bring back the wetlands and other natural features.
Doing the job right will require bringing in 80,000 truckloads of dirt -— enough to run a caravan of dump trucks from Miami to Tampa, said Swiftmud executive director Robert Beltran.
The restoration also requires putting in 900,000 new plants, he said, involving what he predicted would be "the largest volunteer marsh-planting project in Tampa Bay history."
To get the ball rolling for the rest of the project, about 264 acres of uplands have already been restored, Swiftmud officials said. The area that was the target for Monday's kickoff calls for 398 acres to be turned into coastal and freshwater wetlands and 381 acres to be used as upland habitat. The land is near a similar restoration project at Cockroach Bay.
Among those who gathered for the project's official launch were state Department of Environmental Protection secretary Herschel Vinyard Jr. and Swiftmud board chairman Carlos Beruff. Instead of a ribbon-cutting or groundbreaking, they joined Beltran in hoisting a few shovelfuls of dirt to plant a small longleaf pine, and Beltran encouraged them to come back in two years to see the improvements.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @craigtimes.