TAMPA — Back in the 1960s, Florida phosphate companies were not required to restore land they ravaged by mining.
Luckily for the state’s environment, Florida law now mandates companies reclaim the land after they finish stripping the organic fertilizer from the rock and dirt. But tracts of pockmarked land mined before the restoration laws were enacted still exist.
One of those pockets, in the eastern third of Hillsborough County’s Balm-Boyette Scrub Preserve, is scheduled for a major makeover. The Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, will pay for and construct the restoration at a cost of nearly $2.3 million.
The 25 acres of county-owned land is gouged by steep-banked water pits. Before the mining, there were three wetland tributaries that formed the headwaters of forested wetlands known as Stallion Hammock. An interior creek called Pringle Branch meandered through the wetlands before feeding Fishhawk Creek and the Alafia River.
“Instead of there being a natural stream that would head into Stallion Hammock, which feeds into the Alafia River, you wind up with this disconnected mishmash of old mine pits,” said Forest Turbiville, Hillsborough County’s conservation and environmental lands manager.
“We’re going to be regrading all that,” Turbiville said, “and creating not only a stream bed but a series of connected marshes to reduce erosion and create wildlife habitat, especially for wading birds.”
Turbiville originally recommended the project in 1998 when he was an employee at the water management district.
“It’s something that’s near and dear to my heart,” he said. “It’s great that the district came up with the money to fund it.”
In contemplating the restoration, Turbiville looked at aerial photographs of the area taken in 1938.
“I saw how it all connected up and how beautiful these little stream tributaries were that flowed into Stallion Hammock,” he said. “I wanted to do the best we could to reconnect and reconfigure the streams so we could get them back to some semblance of what they used to be prior to the disturbance by the mining.”
The wetlands won’t be exactly like they were because of the level of disturbance, Turbiville, but it will be a huge improvement.
The restoration is being done under Swiftmud’s Surface Water Improvement and Management, or SWIM, program. The project will create and enhance a “habitat mosaic,” district spokeswoman Terri Behling said in an e-mail.
“With proximity only 10 miles from Tampa Bay, the project will provide abundant habitat for wading birds as well as upland wildlife species,” Behling said.
The water district has done a number of wetland restoration and creation projects on phosphate mined lands, the most recent a 1,000-acre wetland restoration used to treat outfall from Lake Hancock in Polk County.
Design and permitting for the project should be completed by September, Behling said, and construction finished by September 2021.
Balm-Boyette Scrub Preserve is 4,933 acres in the eastern part of the county.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection owns 3,700 acres in the preserve and the remainder belongs to Hillsborough County.
The county’s parks and conservation department manages the land.