Hillsborough boat parade highlights river restoration

It was spectacle of lights on the Hillsborough River Saturday night as dozens of boaters and paddlers set sail for the 19th Annual Friends of the River Holiday Boat Parade. The event is meant to celebrate the life restored back to the river and raise awareness about the importance of keeping it clean.

"We love the river," paddler Emily Compton said. "It's so great to see everybody come out and really celebrate it."

The parade is put on by the Friends of the River, a group made up of residents who live along the Hillsborough River. The organization started nearly 20 years ago to bring awareness and support to restoring the river.

"The river wasn't getting any water most of the year," organizer Phil Compton said. "Which meant the life of the river was going away."

Twelve years ago  the organization sued the City of Tampa and won, resulting in the city now adding fresh water to the river on a daily basis.

"The fish have come back," Compton said. "The birds have come back. The river is much happier and healthier and people want to come to the river so this is a celebration of the restoration of the life of the Hillsborough River."

Sunday's parade route began at the Lowery Park Boat Ramp, stretched up river, under the I-275 overpass and ended in Sulpher Springs, creating a spectacle for the entire community.

"We figured out that if you treat it right," Compton said. "It'll come back and treat you right. And so now a lot of the activities are focused on the river. We once dismissed it and now we embrace it."

This year, a total of 80 vessels participated in the parade.