When I was first asked to do another water project by the South Florida Museum, I was excited to be able to bring attention to the issues the State of Florida is facing with regard to water. I realized it was way more than the story of my connection to rivers, bays, and estuaries. For the story to be complete, we needed the voices of river and water keepers, springs advocates, Native Americans, heads of organizations such as Tampa Bay Watch and the people working for Water Management districts and the like. Through working with such advocates, I came to see the critical role volunteers play and how essential getting the public involved is to finding solutions to the problems we face. Volunteers often obtain the baseline numbers needed to measure what is actually happening, and they do needed work such as planting marsh plugs, re-introducing oysters, taking samples, and cleaning up shorelines. An added benefit is that by getting out in the field, they see what is happening with their own eyes, they build connections to their environment, and they establish bonds within their communities and their families. People sometimes ask me if my work on this project is depressing, because I frequently come across troubled water. Up until the morning of this marsh planting, I would mention that I saw beautiful water and water that had been cleaned up too and that this gave me hope. Now I can say that volunteers like the individuals and families I met Saturday morning are what keep me going and inspire me to give more of myself to this cause.
Brandt Henningsen of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWIM) explained to the crowd that this was the largest volunteer marsh planting in the history of Tampa Bay. Volunteers that morning (400 were expected, though I don't think quite that many showed up), planted 40,000 marsh plugs into new intertidal marsh platforms. Earlier in the week, a school group was out planting plugs, so the volunteers this morning were filling in the gaps and planting in other areas around the Rock Ponds. The project was designed by EcoSphere Restoration Institute, Inc., a non-profit that specializes in restoration. The total project comprises 1.6 miles of enhanced/restored coastal habitats for Tampa Bay. New Shorelines created will be 16.2 miles. The record setting planting I witnessed on Saturday was a cooperative effort between the SWIM program, SWFWMD, Tampa Bay Watch, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the Hillsborough County Conservation and Environmental Lands Management Department. I was struck by how much can get done when groups cooperate and lots of volunteers come out to work on a comprehensive plan. It is very exciting to see something like this come to fruition, especially in the current political environment when politicians spend just as much time blocking things from happening as they do getting work done.
Peter Clark is the founder of Tampa Bay Watch. He has worked with over 100,000 volunteers in installing 10,000 oyster reef units, 1,200 tons of oyster shell, and planting 1,000,000 salt marsh grasses to restore 200 acres of coastal tidal ponds to Tampa Bay. In 1994, he received the Oustading Environmentalist of the Year award from the Marine Research Instituted Environmental Excellence Awards program. He was also the recipient of the NOAA Fisheries/American Fisheries Society Nancy Foster Habitat Conservation Award in 2005. In order to get these projects accomplished, it requires the vision and leadership of people like Peter Clark. In the past, professionals were hired to do all phases of restoration projects, but Peter Clark and others he works with have realized that rounding up volunteers was much more effective precisely because of the connection with the environment being part of such initiatives fosters.
This is a photograph of the Rock Ponds before planting began. This particular tract had been used for agricultural purposes and farmers had blocked the inlet that flowed into this area from the Bay. The native plant communities and habitat values had been stripped off this land, as was the case with the other parcels in this project which had been used for sand/shell mining and/or agricultural purposes as well. The photograph above shows the denuded state of the landscape to be restored.
This area in the back section of the Rock Ponds has some vegetation around it, but it is still quite sandy and not as supportive of the ecosystems as it will be after this project is completed.
One of the really great things about a project like this for volunteers is that it gives you a strong sense of purpose. I could sense everyone's excitement about being there and contributing to the betterment of the environment. Not only do these restoration projects provide habitat for birds and fish, they filter the water and salt marsh grasses also help catch mangrove pods so they can become establish and contribute to both filtering the watering and holding the soil in place. These projects are not just essential for water quality, they are important for mediating the impact of sea level rise as well.
In the photograph above, a team leader from Tampa Bay Watch is explaining to the volunteers how to plant the plugs. Everyone paid complete attention, because they wanted to do it the right way. This clearly helps foster respect and care for the environment beyond the volunteers' participation in this particular project.
Families were out in force, which was great to see. When my children were younger, I was a Cub Scout Troop Leader and I always felt the most important projects we did were the ones where we taught young people to care for nature in some way. Everyone on this team laughed a lot watching the puppy get in on the action.
It wasn't all fun and games for the children though. Some, like Haley above, were actively engaged in the planting process.
Others like Jillian found crabs and various creatures around the edge of the pond and learned what forms of life live in bays and why it is so important to create habitats like this. When children participate in these projects, they learn not to be afraid of nature and to respect all life forms. It made me happy and hopeful for our future to see these families working together.
Peter walked around and talked to the volunteers the whole time, thanking them for their help and answering any questions they had. It was inspiring to see the respect and kindness with which he treated everyone, and totally explained why they were able to get such a historically large crowd to work on this project.
Besides families, there were scores of college students, couples young and old, and people from all walks of life. It made me realize that to solve or at mediate in any way the environmental crises we face, it will take a grassroots effort. How appropriate to begin by planting sea grasses.
Though some families with small children left before the task was completed, most people stayed until the end and got the job done. No one seemed to complain about the hard work. There is something about digging in the mud that really connects a person with the earth.
It was great to see the teamwork this project fostered and the help people gave each other in the process. Working together is the only way anything important ever gets done and this was a perfect example of cooperation in action. It was so satisfying to see the shoreline transformed in a single morning and this is a gift that will keep on giving, because it will continue to fill in and evolve in the months and years ahead.
What better way to strengthen a bond between friends or partners than by planting new growth together. This project not only helped the environment, I really believe it will be beneficial to the volunteers as well.
People brought their own shovels and trowels, or borrowed them from the organizers. All the little green plants that aren't sea grasses are mangroves. I noticed that these plants are already taking hold before the sea grasses are even established, which is a great sign for this project. I am excited to go back in six months or a year to see how much it will have changed.
This is an older phase of the Rock Pond Restoration Project in another area south of where the volunteers were planting last Saturday. The marsh plugs were taken from this area to populate the new section. You can see the transformation of the coastline back to a closer approximation of what it once was.
Thank you Peter Clark of Tampa Bay Watch, Bradnt Henningsen and Nancy Norton of SWIM, Thomas Ries from EcoSphere, and everyone else involved in envisioning this project and bringing it to fruition. And thank you volunteers for all your hard work, good cheer, and support of the environment and each other. You are the grass roots effort we need in the world right now!