MANATEE -- Bishop Harbor gets no respect.
Over 45 years, the northern Manatee County harbor has been the unwilling recipient of various ecological insults, since a phosphate plant was first built upstream from it in 1966.
The latest episode: a leak of millions of gallons per day of contaminated discharge, drained through ditches to the harbor over past weeks from a facility that disposes of dredge material.
Current owners of the former Piney Point plant, HRK Holdings LLC, finally halted the flood in mid-June from their site at 13300 U.S. 41 N.
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Official water quality testing on the harbor’s eastern edge found high levels of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen -- chemicals that in enough quantity can cause algae blooms and, occasionally, fish kills.
That’s nothing new for Bishop Harbor.
But this time, the harbor might be able to better withstand the latest incursion, since, for 15 years, it has been part of Tampa Bay’s largest habitat restoration project, according to Brandt Henningsen, Ph.D., chief environmental scientist for the Surface Water Improvement and Management program operated by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Officials hope the Terra Ceia Ecosystem Restoration Project, a multi-agency, $8.4 million effort, can help the harbor and the area around it fend off pollution and regain its ecological health.
The project is sandwiched between Bishop Harbor Bay and Terra Ceia Bay, within the Terra Ceia State Park and Aquatic Preserves.
It now encompasses about 2,400 acres, bounded roughly from Bishop Harbor on the north, and just south of Interstate 275 on the south; and from U.S. 41 on the east to Tampa Bay on the west.
Terra Ceia Isles?
The acreage around Bishop Harbor, part of the Terra Ceia Aquatic Buffer Preserve, sits on the coast just south of Port Manatee.
It was once destined to be just another subdivision and golf course called Terra Ceia Isles.
But in 1995, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the State of Florida managed to snap up the failed residential development on an 1,800-acre tract for about $1.5 million at a foreclosure auction, according to Henningsen.
Since Manatee officials would not forgive back taxes of $900,000, the purchase price ultimately added up to about $2.4 million, he said.
Actual restoration work did not begin until 2002; the final phases of the project continue today, he said.
It was designed to correct years of ecological neglect: areas in Bishop Harbor dug out in preparation for the residential development; heavy growth of non-native vegetation, like Brazilian pepper; feral hog populations; decades of illegal trash dumping; disturbed hydrology and water flow; and 32 abandoned irrigation wells, many that were leaking, Henningsen noted in a report about the project last year.
Money and expertise came from various government agencies, such as the state park preserve and the aquatic preserve programs operated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection; the water management district; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, it said.
It is unusual in that it also has attracted companies to help from the private sector, along with 24 volunteer groups, which has saved the state thousands of dollars over the years, Henningsen said.
Invasive plants and trees have been removed, and in their place are newly planted native trees and grasses.
“It’s starting to look like an upland,” said Henningsen, referring to an area where newly planted pine trees are now 9 years old.
“It’s a project we’re real proud of.”
Native species thriving
In some places, you can see at water’s edge sheaves of green grass called “cord grass.”
The native species now thrives in an area once overrun with invasive, non-native species.
Under the project’s auspices, people have installed an estimated 328,821 plants, including 290,922 of various native freshwater and estuarine wetland species; and 37,899 plants of various native upland trees, shrubs and grasses, according to Henningsen’s report.
On one day alone in 2007, volunteers installed 34,000 plugs of marsh grasses, scattered over 32 acres of restored intertidal habitat, the report said.
“The roots help hold sediment in place, helps with erosion, and leaves a source of food for various animals and shelter,” said Sean Meehan, whose specialty is habitat restoration at NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Services, based in St. Petersburg.
“Plants in the intertidal area -- small fishes, mosquito fish, juvenile mullet hide and forage in there,” he said. “When the tide goes out, fiddler crabs go in, certain clams live there, so it’s a pretty important habitat, he said.
“The native habitats are more resilient, we’ve certainly demonstrated that during storm events. Cord grass is able to better withstand hurricanes, there is also evidence it comes back after oil spills.
“The important thing is, they provide the services the animals and other plants and birds need, where as an exotic habitat like Brazilian peppers -- they don’t eat Brazilian peppers, birds don’t nest there, it shades out native plants,” Meehan said.
Power of volunteers
For about five years, the nonprofit Tampa Bay Watch has been providing volunteers to work on the project, said Peter Clark, president.
“What we’ve done is organize school programs that involve the community in the restoration and protection of the Tampa Bay Estuary,” he said Friday.
“It does two things: stabilizes the shoreline, and improves water quality; and creates habitat for fish and wildlife,” he said.
About 18 middle and high schools are growing salt marsh grass for coastal restoration, providing a source of free plants and an energetic crew of dedicated volunteers.
“What better way to help Tampa Bay than doing a hands-on project?” Clark said.
The organization’s volunteers have numbered well over 1,000, he said, providing ordinary citizens with a “hands-on” role ensuring the bay’s return to ecological health, he added.
Perhaps it will help Bishop Harbor fend off any adverse effects of the recent discharges there?
“That should help -- not that we want to add any more nutrients to the bay,” Clark noted. He added that communities of salt marsh grasses do have the ability to buffer such water quality impacts.
Eventually, the entire restored area is to be opened to the public, but parts of it are still under construction, said Kevin Keiser, manager for the Terra Ceia Preserve State Park.
“I think the restoration is really interesting, and a lot of fun, and I hope it’s working,” he said.
When full public usage occurs depends upon when scarce funds can be allocated to build amenities like parking lots and a boat ramp, he said.
The area also will be losing the staff of the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve, with an office on Terra Ceia Road: Manager Randy Runnels and his staff are slated to be laid off this week due to budget cuts.
His office is among four of 16 aquatic preserve offices slated to close July 1, at a savings to the state of $596,523, said DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller.
“These offices were chosen for the proposal, as they would be the easiest offices to reopen should revenue streams improve,” Miller said.
“The chosen offices are not a reflection on the excellent work and accomplishments by those offices and staff.”
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.