Protecting and Restoring Wetlands

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Image of A freshwater bayou within the Breakfast Point Wetland Mitigation Bank north of Panama City Beach. This large wetland restoration project and mitigation bank was the result of a unique Ecosystem Management Agreement between Florida DEP and the Saint Joe Company.
A freshwater bayou within the Breakfast Point Wetland Mitigation Bank north of Panama City Beach. This large wetland restoration project and mitigation bank was the result of a unique Ecosystem Management Agreement between Florida DEP and the Saint Joe Company. Russell Sparkman

Video Transcript

Wetlands are the kidneys that filter Florida's water. They slow the flow of water, helping to reduce flooding and provide prime habitat for many unique plants and animals. Historic flood control practices, agriculture and development have altered many wetlands areas. Today, complex state and federal laws are in place to protect wetlands and mitigate damage to wetlands.

Narrator: That's restoration biologist John Tobe. He's mimicking the call of the Sandhill Crane, a tall gray bird whose recent return bodes well for a wetland restoration project at Breakfast Point on West Bay near Panama City Beach.

Tobe has spent hours out here tallying native plants and tracking the progress of this emerging wetland. During a recent survey, a trilling made him look up from the needle rush. Sandhill Cranes were circling.

John Tobe, Wetlands Biologist: And they came down into prairies that they wouldn't have been able to come into before. Because they're large birds, long necks and long legs. Would have never felt safe enough to fly into this dense pine plantation.

Narrator: Timber growers drained this area decades ago to grow pines for pulp and lumber. Now, that process is moving in reverse, and mother nature appears eager to help. Unlike in the Everglades, where wetlands restoration involves complex engineering feats, the strategy here is simple: take away the trees and the wetlands return.

John Tobe: If you think of all these trees as straws taking up water, you're losing a lot of water in the landscape.

Narrator: With most of the pines gone, the sun is coaxing the growth of plants that like to get their feet wet. A watery savannah is, literally, coming to light. It's luring not only Sandhills but all sorts of wetland-dependent creatures.

John Tobe: They need landscape scale, and that's important, landscape scale restoration. And that's what this is.

Narrator: What this is, is the Breakfast Point mitigation bank, is a six-thousand-acre mosaic of pine flatwoods -- connected to freshwater marshes -- connected to salt marsh, and incorporating two bayous and 11 miles of coastline along West Bay. A vast wetland like this is increasingly rare.

By promising to restore and preserve this area forever, the state's largest private landholder, the Saint Joe Company, earns credits that they can "bank" and later spend when they impinge on other wetlands.

Connie Bersock, a wetlands expert with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, says mitigation banks and ecosystem restoration projects help to balance preservation with growth.

Connie Bersock, Florida Department of Environmental Protection: The goal of the wetlands permitting program, or the environmental resource permitting program is no net loss of wetland function.

Narrator: Bersock says that if the ability of a wetland to provide fish and wildlife habitat is reduced or eliminated, then habitat of the same type, for the same kinds of animals, must be provided to make up for that loss. That's what's being achieved in places like Breakfast Point.

Connie Bersock: The state of Florida has lost over half of its wetlands. Early developers and even current people look at wetlands and say, 'What are they good for? They're not wet enough to float a boat in, but they're too wet to build on. So, you either have to drain them or you have to fill them.

Narrator: Draining and filling them has crippled nature's ability to clean itself. Wetlands are the kidneys that filter Florida's water. They also slow the flow of water, helping to reduce flooding and provide prime habitat for many types of fish and wildlife as well as humans.

Tom Estes, Saint Joe Company: People want to be in the same kind of extraordinary habitats you see all around us here. And, that's also where you tend to have the greatest diversity in terms of wildlife species.

Narrator: That's Tom Estes of the Saint Joe Company. He explains that the goal here is to restore and maintain natural wetland function in the midst of development.

Tom Estes: You always sort of have that push and pull between where folks want to be and where a lot of critters are. That makes what has happened here, what the Department of Environmental Protection and the Saint Joe Company and other cooperating agencies and public environmental groups what they have done extraordinarily unique in the length and breadth of protecting the bay. It's really a pretty unbelievable conservation story.

Narrator: Extraordinary restoration stories are playing out elsewhere, too. In central Florida, near Lakeland, vast areas of wetlands had been excavated for phosphate mines many of which are now defunct. The disturbed landscape around the Tenoroc Fish Management Area, a former phosphate mine, appears useless. Kevin Claridge and Michelle Harmeling of the DEP's Bureau of Mine Reclamation wade through a thick tangle of nonnative grass looking for ways to reveal its hidden potential.

Michelle Harmeling, Florida Department of Environmental Protection: Nothing, nothing will grow in the understory, it's a very noxious weed. Seedlings can't germinate under this dense canopy of grass.

Narrator: Prior to 1975, when this land was mined, the state didn't mandate reclamation. Harmeling says the Cogan grass and other invasive plants moved in when the mines moved on and the land was restored as deep lakes and pastureland for cattle.

Michelle Harmeling: When this area was mined there was no wetland reclamation requirement at the time. So yes, when they reclaimed this they reclaimed this just as pasture because that was a choice in the day.

Narrator: Removing invasive plants and restoring native habitat on the uplands is essential for coaxing wetlands back to life at the Tenoroc site, which is the headwaters of the Peace River. Since the wetlands were drained during mining, water stays trapped in lakes and clay settling ponds instead of serving as a source of flow to the river. When the waters are freed and flow patterns are restored, the land and the river will start to heal.

Michelle Harmeling: When we are improving wetland function and adding wetlands, it will aid in storage and in enhancement of surface flow entering the Peace River; those are our main goals, out here.

Narrator: "Out here" is not really that far out. This wetland-in-progress, very near the Polk County Parkway, is also mitigation for wetlands paved over during road construction.

Harmeling says that the science of restoring wetlands has come a long way in the last 20 years. They understand what's important to make it work... getting the water levels right, having the appropriate soil and plant types as well as critical importance of adjacent uplands to the health of the wetlands.

While the ultimate success at the Tenoroc restoration won't be realized for a while, Harmeling and her colleagues are already seeing the return of wetland-dependent animals.

Michelle Harmeling: We have a nice group of Sandhill cranes, and a resident coyote that likes to harass the Sandhill cranes.

Narrator: It's not a big bird but rather a tiny fish that is the barometer of health at spoonbill marsh, the site of an experimental restoration just north of Vero Beach in Indian River County. Living in the flooded burrows of blue land crabs, the mangrove rivulus is as rare and threatened as its coastal high marsh habitat.

Dave Herbster, Florida Department of Environmental Protection: All up and down the Indian River, this is land that has been prime for development

Narrator: A 23-year DEP veteran, Dave Herbster is awed by this landscape. It's here that marsh transitions into a thick mangrove swamp that buffers the banks of the Indian River.

Dave Herbster: When I first came out here I must confess I wondered what it was that we were working so hard to protect. 55:24 But, once you come out here a few times, you stop to listen and you stop to look and if you have the benefit like we've had of getting experts on this type of habitat out here to walk the property with you, you realize what a rare piece of land it is and why it's so important to protect it. 55:41

Narrator: Like much of the area, this property once was planted in citrus. Big freezes in the 1980's made the land more appealing to developers than citrus growers. The fact that this bit of wetland and its adjacent upland remain undeveloped presented DEP with an opportunity not only to solve a pollution problem AND restore wetland function, but also to provide for the needs of a growing population.

For almost 20 years, two county-owned reverse osmosis plants have supplied water to residents here. The byproduct of this water filtration process is brine - a salty wastewater. This brine is discharged directly into the Indian River Lagoon, one of North America's most biologically diverse estuaries. When the county was ordered to stop, D-E-P set out to help find a unique solution. That solution involves mixing and diluting the brine with lagoon water and releasing it through a series of ponds, wetlands and mangroves and then back into the lagoon.

Narrator: Herbster is confident that the project will benefit not only a species in decline, but also help serve the needs of a growing human population.

Dave Herbster: When I look at it I see connections to the Indian River Lagoon. I see an expanse of wide open spaces that's going to get protected. So often what we do at the department can feel like incremental protections and this one gives us the chance to go big picture, which really makes it exciting.

Related Links

DEP Wetlands Program

DEP Environmental Resource Permitting Program

DEP Wetlands Mitigation Section

DEP Wetlands Restoration Information Center