Mother Nature may have built Tampa Bay, but he restored it

For decades, one of the biggest champions of the Tampa Bay environment has been proving that you really can turn back the hands of time.

With maps, machines, and careful calculations, Brandt Henningsen and his team of scientists and engineers have restored nearly 5,000 acres of shoreline, wetlands, and uplands in 99 locations around Tampa Bay.

"There's always people who question if you can replicate what Mother Nature can do by herself, but the proof's in the pudding," said Henningsen, who will retire at the end of January after more than 30 years as chief advisor and scientist.

"Tampa Bay is the only highly-urbanized estuary in the world that's actually getting better because of the dedication of so many individuals," he explained.

SWIM, which stands for Surface Water Management and Improvement, was authorized and funded by the legislature in 1987. Florida's five water management districts formed SWIM teams, but only the Tampa Bay team remains in operation. 

When state funding wound down, the Southwest Florida Water Management District continued to fund the program. Henningsen says the bay's renaissance began with advanced sewerage treatment and was fueled by leaders and citizens who pushed to clean up the bay. 

Along with restoration, the SWIM program worked to reduce pollution from stormwater runoff.  

Hillsborough County partnered to purchase environmentally sensitive land like Cockroach Bay and the Rock Ponds Ecosystem Restoration Project, where we met with Henningsen atop "Mount Rock Ponds," a 65-foot-high hill formed with dredge material from manmade ponds and lagoons that SWIM constructed.

It's the largest of the 99 projects at more than a thousand acres. Henningsen and his team transformed mines and farms that were built here on the shores of the bay into a re-creation of what the area looked like in the 1930's before the land was developed.

Henningsen says much progress has been made, but the commitment must continue. 

"The Baby Boomers, we're phasing out, It's time for the Gen-X'er's and Millennials to carry that torch, and I think they're going to do it," he said.

Nature built the bay, but Henningsen's team helped rebuild it to the way it was generations ago.