A career spent helping Mother Nature restore the land surrounding Tampa Bay

For 31 years, biologist Brandt Henningsen restored wetlands for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. He retired recently from the job he always loved.
Published March 8

RUSKIN — Biologist Brandt Henningsen has given three decades to helping Mother Nature take back the land. It's been an immensely satisfying career, he says.

"Not everyone has the luxury of a job that you love, to go out and go to the field and feel like you’re making a difference.’’

Dressed casually in sun-protective shirt, jeans and cowboy boots, this native Texan is standing atop “Mount Rock Ponds East,’’ which offers a vista of the Tampa and St. Petersburg skylines across the bay and, in the foreground, a 1,043-acre restoration project that Henningsen and engineer Nancy Norton oversaw near Ruskin. What once was a swath of farmland and ponds left from rock, shell and sand mining has been transformed back to its original landscape of upland pine flatwoods, hardwood hammocks, freshwater habitats and a properly working estuary — a nursery for baby fish.

The project began in 2014 and was mostly finished by December of 2015, though trees are still being planted. Already, the environmentalists are seeing wildlife return — deer, bobcats, raccoons, possums, coyotes, otters and a lot more birds, especially wading birds. "The Tampa chapter of Audubon has been doing bird surveys,'' he said. "They've documented over 150 species of birds using this site.''

Henningsen, 67, who earned his Ph.D. in biology from the University of South Florida, retired at the end of January after 31 years with the Southwest Florida Water Management District. He was one of the original members of the Surface Water Improvement and Management team, called SWIM, a statewide program created by the Florida legislature in 1987 to improve ground water quality by returning wetlands back to nature.

He’s been director or co-director of 58 of the 99 restoration projects — or 2,700 acres out of 4,700 acres — improved by the SWIM program in the Tampa Bay region. The sites ranged from a half acre to the Rock Ponds Restoration Project, the largest in the water management district's 16-county region.

Henningsen applauds the efforts of "thousands of people,'' from scientists to public officials to corporate representatives to tree-planting volunteers, to improve wetlands. Restoring watershed areas has enhanced fresh water quality and, in turn, helped bring Tampa Bay back to life. That, he noted, and a concentrated, 40-year effort to improve sewage and storm water treatment.

“‘We’re the only highly urbanized estuary in the world that is actually getting better,’’ he said.

Henningsen tends to downplay his role in wetlands restoration, but he has developed a national reputation, said Michele Sager, spokeswoman for the water management district. Last year, he received the Dr. Nancy Foster Habitat Conservation Award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association for "exceptional achievement and dedication to habitat conservation in the coastal and marine environment.'' It's named for the late NOAA scientist who was the first director of the Office of Habitat Conservation.

Henningsen's love of science began as a young boy, he said. His father was a geology professor at a small Texas college, so an affinity for science ran in the family.

"As a youth I was always out in the woods exploring,” he said. “I was a Boy Scout, camping and stuff like that.''

When he was 10, his parents bought him a swim mask, snorkel and fins. He was thrilled when he dunked his head into a swimming pool and realized the mask's potential. At the same time, he was enthralled by the works of undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau. "This is what I want to do,'' he recalls thinking. "I want to be a marine biologist.'' It was his focus from then on. "I got lucky to be able to get the SWIM job.''

"Mount Rock Ponds East'' and "Mount Rock Ponds West'' are two huge observation mounds made up of soil excavated to create a lagoon. More than 1.6 million cubic yards of soil were moved and 981,000 plants have so far been installed in the project. The environmentalists also removed a half-mile long berm parallel to the shore, a dam built by farmers to stop salt water from flowing into their fields.

"When you put a berm up on the edge of farm fields, you are also interrupting the hydrology of the natural distribution of fresh water. When it rains, it comes across land,'' Henningsen said. "The thin layer of water moving over the land form is called sheet flow, and sheet flow is a natural process that's important to the ecosystem to receive water at the right timing, volume and distribution along its shoreline. And if you upset that distribution, timing and volume of water, you've now degraded the system.''

It's not only keeping the fresh water wetland hydrated, he said. It also cleans the water as it makes its way down to the intertidal lagoon.

“Once it gets there, fresh water spreads in the lagoon and lowers the salinity of that lagoon,'' he said, providing the optimum environment for the shrimp, crabs and baby fish, including snook, mullet, redfish, tarpon and trout.

Henningsen said he hasn't decided yet what he's going to do in retirement. "I do envision that I'm going to be doing a lot of volunteer work. Whether I have a chance to do some part-time consulting or not, that's yet to be seen.''

He stresses that the work never ends. Mother Nature needs a lot of helpers, especially in Florida.

"People like Florida. They want to move here. They like the environment , and it’s paradise to them,'' Henningsen said. "But what we need is a good balance between what’s left of our natural ecosystems versus the development part. And it’s that struggle to have that balance that’s going to be a challenge for the state in the future.''

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.