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"Swamp rats' turn muck into prize-winning pond

On a sunny day last week when the wind blew ripples across the water behind his house, Jack Kennedy marvelled at the abundant bird and plant life.

Brazilian Pepper trees and untended cattails once grew so tall he had trouble seeing his neighbors, let alone the pond. Now he watches colorful ducks, hand-sized grebes and little Blue Herons share a thriving habitat buzzing with water snakes, bass, budding cypress trees and water lilies.

To county judges, the small pond _ essentially a retention area designed to filter dirty stormwater runoff from surrounding streets and yards _ is the best in Hillsborough, and an example of how a community can pull together to turn an eyesore into a thing of beauty.

Homeowners in Cumberland Manors off Bellamy Road recently won first-place in the county's annual Adopt-A-Pond contest, beating out 10 competitors.

With its tasteful combination of native plants and design, "this pond stood well above the others," program coordinator John McGee said.

Adopt-A-Pond was launched in the early 1990s to upgrade the appearance of stormwater areas while creating more native habitat. An off-shoot of the county's federal stormwater permit, Adopt-A-Pond has pumped tens of thousands of dollars into local projects.

A tugboat captain with a degree in marine biology from the University of Tampa, Kennedy said he loves working on the pond during his months off and enjoying the results in quiet moments while drinking his morning coffee.

Success didn't happen overnight, though. The "swamp rats," as they call themselves, started chopping away at the overgrowth six long years ago, Sheila Lambeth said. She and her husband, Daryl, bought here during the late-1980s. For the first five years or so nobody did much about the mess, she remembered.

"It was real funny," Lambeth said as she leafed through a photo album documenting the pond's evolution. "The sign in the front said, "Waterfront' and we were in the back and said, "Where's the water?' It wasn't too pretty."

Then Daryl Lambeth started donning large waders and pulling weeds. Progress was slow, even after Kennedy moved in and got involved. They literally would remove tons of weeds without making a big dent, Kennedy said.

The turning point, he said, came several years ago when the county dredged the built-up vegetation. That largely left the group with the easier task of restoring native plants and trees. Although the water largely disappeared last year, the drought actually helped by compressing years of muck on the bottom, Kennedy said.

"After the day's done, we have a big cookout," he said. "Margaritas, beer. It's really been a good mixer for us."

McGee said homeowners did an excellent job of creating new wildlife habitat and called the colony of fat lily pads in the pond's center "aesthetically pleasing."

Kennedy, who grew up in rural Illinois, said he hardly can wait for the young pickerelweed and soft rushes to mature. Despite living in a densely-packed subdivision near the Veterans Expressway, he keeps an eager watch for osprey on fish hunts.

"You'll be sitting out in the back and all of a sudden you hear a flop," he said. "The osprey's taking off with it."

_ Josh Zimmer covers Keystone and the environment. He can be reached at (813) 226-3474. For more information about the Adopt-A-Pond program, call (813) 272-5912.