Public-Private Partnership Restores Newman Branch Creek

Volunteers at Newman BranchLeft: Bruce Wirth, a District deputy executive director; Sallie Parks, Governing Board member and co-chair ex offico of the Pinellas-Anclote River Basin Board; and Cheryl Johnson, secretary of the Alafia River Basin Board, helped plant a tree to celebrate the completion of the restoration project. Center: Dozens of volunteers planted marsh grass to help complete the restoration project. Right: Many volunteers brought their children to help at the volunteer planting.

The sun shown brightly as approximately 75 volunteers descended upon Newman Branch Creek early one June morning to plant 6,000 marsh grass and upland plants, capping off a three-year restoration project.

Newman Branch Creek was ditched and channeled about 60 years ago. The area was later excavated for a fish farm and invasive plants moved in, impacting the coastal resources.

The property is now owned by Tampa Electric Company and is located south of the company’s Big Bend Power Station and its Manatee Viewing Center.

The 12-acre restoration project, which culminated with the volunteer planting and a tree planting, began approximately three years ago. Tom Ries, a founding member of Protecting the Environment through Ecological Research (PEER), is credited as being the visionary behind this partnership.

“Tom identified the property for restoration, designed the project and brought all the partners together,” said Brandt Henningsen, a District chief environmental scientist.

“As public lands become scarce, partnerships like this become more important,” said Ries. “I would like to see this project be a springboard to more projects; not only with TECO Energy, but with other companies as well.”

After a brief safety and planting orientation, about a third of the volunteers were driven to the second portion of the restoration project, located approximately 200 yards through the mangroves and unreachable by foot.

The rest grabbed their gear and got to work, eager to get their hands and feet wet.

Matt and Ellen DeMers were up to their knees in water as they worked to plant the wet areas before the incoming tide became too deep. The DeMers found out about the planting through Ellen’s employer, Tampa Electric. Most of the volunteers were either employees of Tampa Electric or Scheda Ecological Associates, or they were members of PEER.

“We figured we’re going to get wet, and once you’re wet it doesn’t matter,” said Matt DeMers. “It’s fun to work on something with long-term benefits, and it’s better than sitting around on a Saturday.”

Sandy Scheda, president of Scheda Ecological Associates, was one of many parents who brought their children out to the event. Her daughter Lauren used a small gardening trowel to help her mom cover the roots of each plant.

“She’s been coming out on all our projects since she could walk,” said Scheda. “The last one we did, the water was so deep I put a life jacket on her so I wouldn’t worry.”

Several District operations staff who worked on clearing the invasive species and contouring the land also came out to participate in the volunteer planting.

“I include my wife and teenage daughter in volunteer projects because I believe it is important to work together as a family to build a legacy for future generations,” said Adam Hange, senior heavy equipment operator. “Hopefully these projects will serve as inspiration for others to also make a difference through volunteering.”

A tree planting ceremony to dedicate the completion of the Newman Branch Creek restoration project followed the volunteer planting.

“The popularity of the Manatee Viewing Center taught me that people are interested in the area, and that led to our support of this project,” said Bill Whale, Tampa Electric vice president of energy delivery. “We hope to continue with projects like this that will grow our environmental stewardship.”

Bruce Wirth, a deputy executive director with the District, spoke about how important this private-public partnership is to future projects.

“To have a private partner is somewhat unique, but to have a partner such as Tampa Electric that took this land and put it aside for restoration is a great example for others to follow.”

The Tampa Electric Company placed the restoration site under a permanent conservation easement to protect the restored habitats and will assume all maintenance responsibilities for the site. Future plans for the site include nature trails with educational signage.

The restoration project cost approximately $159,000. Funding for the project is divided among state SWIM funds, the Alafia River Basin Board and PEER, who secured grants from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Association and the Pinellas County Environmental Fund.

Cheryl Johnson, a member of the District’s Alafia River Basin Board and a Tampa Electric real estate associate, brought her mom and a friend to volunteer with her. Johnson says she has been tracking the project since the beginning.

“My initial involvement several years ago began while researching information for Tom Ries,” said Johnson. “After being appointed to the Alafia River Basin Board, I was able to follow the project and am proud to see that it came in far below budget without compromising the objectives.”

One of the main reasons for the savings is attributed to using District staff to clear the land and recontour the creek.

“It would have cost us $120,000 to hire a contractor to do the earth-moving work, in addition to equipment rental,” said Ries. “District staff did it for a third of the cost and in five weeks instead of eight.”

Using volunteers to complete the planting also saved another $3,000. Their hard work was rewarded with a T-shirt and lunch, not to mention the knowledge that they are a part of the overall effort to restore Tampa Bay.

“When the volunteers come back later, we hope they feel proud that they had a hand in this,” said Wirth.