PALMETTO — Lisa Long was having a little trouble with her dibble.
The Apollo Beach woman had volunteered to dig holes and help plant some 10,000 plugs of seashore paspalum in the sand of Rock Ponds, a restoration project along the verdant Tampa Bay coast south of Ruskin.
She jabbed the pointed piece of steel into the ground, but struck a bit of limestone, piercing only an inch or so into the soil before thunking against the rock. Again, she plunged it into the ground; again, the soil refused to yield.
All around her, more than 50 volunteers were doing the same, providing the finishing touches to a two-year project to restore more than 1,000 acres of wetlands, uplands, saltwater and freshwater marshes. The Rock Ponds Ecosystem Restoration Project is the biggest such effort in Tampa Bay’s history and it used a cadre of volunteers and paid help to dredge, move earth and plant natural foliage on the publicly owned property.
Long said she has come out four times to help restore nature here in this pristine part of the coastline just south of Cockroach Bay and north of the Manatee County line.
“I want to help,” she said, “I want to build something; to leave it better than when I came here.”
Under the Surface Water Improvement and Management program at the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the $11.9 million Rock Ponds project is the largest ecosystem restoration ever undertaken in the region. On Wednesday, the district will hold a dedication ceremony marking the completion of the work.
The project illustrates the cooperation of the state, the water management district and Hillsborough County, all of which paid for the land and the work done to shape and mold the property into a natural wildlife habitat.
Located on three public parcels in the southeastern reaches of Tampa Bay, the project restored sites that historically were coastal pine flatwoods, scattered hardwood hammocks and various estuarine and freshwater habitats.
But over the years, the upland areas were farmed and mined and invasive non-native plants, including a glut of Brazilian pepper trees, flourished and pretty much eliminated most of the natural plant species and habitat for wildlife.
Water management district scientists saw the need to restore this critical coastal wetland region that provides habitat for essential fish and wildlife species and can improve the water quality in Tampa Bay that was degraded by pollution from urban and agricultural runoff.
The district in 2014 began restoring about 1,043 acres of various coastal habitats at Rock Ponds, including 645 acres of upland pine flatwoods and hardwood hammocks and 398 acres of various estuarine and freshwater habitats.
In all, the tract is 2,500 acres and was purchased by the water management district from TECO for $3.5 million in 2003. Money from the state’s Florida Forever program and the county’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program were pooled to buy the land, along with various grants secured by the district.
Between 2003 and 2014, scientists, hydrologists and engineers mapped the different habitats, conducted archaeological surveys and studied how the property looked before it was converted into farm fields and mining pits.
To create the wetlands, a deep, nearly lifeless borrow pit was filled with dirt pulled from elsewhere on the property, turning the former pit into a shallow, bird-friendly habitat with a meandering shoreline. Those wetlands, along with Piney Point Creek, now connect to a large lagoon, which in turn connects to Tampa Bay.
The estuarine habitats now feature open water tidal channels and lagoons, low and high intertidal marshes, islands, sand and mud flats, deeper water holes, natural limestone artificial reefs and more than 16 miles of new Tampa Bay shorelines.
Cascading freshwater wetlands include both permanent pools as well as pools that come and go.
The project also helped restore the region’s natural water flow and through some creative stormwater channeling, limits pollutants from flowing directly into Tampa Bay by directing runoff through naturally filtering marshes.
Fisheries and nesting birds are expected to flourish now in the newly-created environment.
The Rock Ponds project is a compliment to the Cockroach Bay Ecosystem Restoration Project located on the north side of Cockroach Bay, a 20-year, 500-acre habitat restoration project that was completed in 2012 and now is rife with butterflies, wading birds, raptors, game fish like snook and redfish and even the occasional bobcat.
The Rock Ponds effort is one of 96 Surface Water Improvement and Management coastal restoration projects undertaken since 1989 for a total of 4,617 acres — 7.2 square miles — of restored coastal habitats along the district’s coastal ecosystem.
The finishing touches on the Rock Ponds project took place last week, with volunteers digging and planting marsh plugs, brought there in black plastic bags from an adjacent Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission fish farm.
Brandt Henningsen, chief environmental scientist with the water management district, gave instructions to the volunteers on how to dig and plant the sprigs.
“I hope you come back one day to see what your contribution has led to,” he said, standing on the bed of a water management district pickup truck. He urged volunteers to climb to the top of a 60-foot sodded berm behind them, made up of the dredged sand pulled from the area to create the waterways.
Atop the berm the view is impressive. Besides the wetlands below, there is the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to the west, the city of St. Petersburg to the northwest and downtown Tampa to the north.
More than 30 organizations have participated in planting grasses and marsh plants in the project in an effort to create a “mosaic habitat” which, Henningsen said, “is a combination of different habitats for different wildlife species.”
Rock Ponds, he said, is now part of a 20-mile wildlife corridor that stretches from the Manatee River up into McKay Bay near downtown Tampa.
“This,” he said, “is the largest coastal restoration project ever in Tampa Bay.”
Even with the degradation of the property over the years, the Rock Ponds tract, which got its name from a handful of pits created by the commercial excavation of shell rock and sand, is home to Tampa Bay’s second-largest waterbird rookery, and that can only grow in the wake of the restoration.
On Wednesday, volunteers planted high-marsh plants, each person putting into the ground the contents of two or three bags. Within a couple of hours, they were done.
Martha Gruber, environmental scientist with Tampa Bay Watch, a nonprofit that helps protect and restore the marine and wetland environments of Tampa Bay, said the effort last week was impressive, but was far from one in November when 280 volunteers planted 40,000 plugs along the shoreline of the Rock Ponds wetlands.
Tampa Bay Watch is the liaison between the district and volunteer groups who show up to help out. Volunteers, including corporate employees and school groups and anyone else who wants to get their hands dirty, get a sense of ownership afterward, she said.
“We just put the word out,” she said, “and volunteers come.”