Projects in local communities, a new water use caution area in Hillsborough County, an organizational restructuring and a new executive leadership team were some of the changes that marked the District’s 50th year.
West-central Florida water resources showed signs that efforts to reduce pollution were having positive effects. Scientists with the District’s Surface Water Improvement and Management Program recorded major gains in seagrass growth in Tampa Bay, St. Joseph Sound, Clearwater Harbor, Lemon Bay, Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor. Seagrass is an important barometer of a bay’s health because it requires relatively clean water to flourish and serves as “the nurseries of the bay,” sheltering and supporting a variety of juvenile fish and other marine creatures.
Freshwater resources showed improvements as well. Lake Panasoffkee in Sumter County continued to respond to a 10-year restoration project and effective management of lake levels with clearer water, thicker eelgrass and richer fisheries, according to District and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials.
In Citrus County, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the District for its part in the Three Sisters Springs land acquisition project. Private and public contributors joined forces to purchase the 57-acre site of uplands, wetlands, and three second-magnitude springs that serve as a winter refuge for manatees. The site lies within the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and previously served as a wetland system benefitting Kings Bay. The District acquired a 30 percent interest for the purposes of protecting water resources and to construct a stormwater treatment system.
Restoration work at the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve in Manatee County and Clam Bayou in Pinellas County continued. Terra Ceia, the site of Tampa Bay’s largest salt marsh restoration project, entered its final stage in December. The final restoration phase of the 170-acre Clam Bayou estuary was nearly complete by the end of the year. Following construction of the seven project areas, the District removed a limited area of sediments to promote tidal flushing in the system. Volunteers made a big impact on both projects, planting grasses and clearing trash from shorelines.
A tropical fish nursery that was dominated by nonnative plants and mosquitoes was converted into a maturing 23-acre wetland habitat for many native species. The wetland habitat is part of the 85-acre Ekker Preserve in Hillsborough County.
Another project that will restore habitat and repair erosion along the banks of the Palm River in Tampa began. The Palm River is part of the Tampa Bypass Canal and flows from the District’s S-160 Flood Control Structure. The project’s first phase will remove invasive plants, create intertidal marsh platforms and restore upland areas on parcels that are owned by the District and located on the east side of McKay Bay along the mouth of the river.
Groundbreaking took place for the long-awaited Wares Creek Flood Protection Project. A joint effort between Manatee County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and funded in part by the District, the project will reduce flood damage within the Cedar Hammock Drainage Basin located in Manatee County.
Residents of the Garden Grove neighborhood in the Cypress Gardens area of Polk County will see less flooding and better water quality in nearby lakes thanks to a project that began in the fall. The project will improve the existing stormwater management system, which must accommodate runoff from an 80-acre drainage basin.
The District broke ground on projects at Sawgrass Lake in Pinellas County. A study conducted in the late 1990s at the property, which is owned by the District and managed by Pinellas County, showed that some of the land contained elevated levels of lead and arsenic. One project will remove contaminants from the property, create a water quality treatment pond and remove sediments from the lake, while another project will remove invasive plants and install native plants. The projects are expected to be complete by spring 2013.
Construction began in the fall on projects at Polk County’s Lake Hancock that will result in improved flows and better water quality in the upper Peace River. The Lake Hancock Lake Level Modification Project will allow the District to maintain higher lake levels and to release stored water into the upper Peace River during dry periods to help achieve minimum flow requirements. Work also began on a 1,000-acre treatment wetland to improve water quality leaving the lake. Water will flow through large areas of wetland vegetation where pollutants will be removed from the water before it enters the river. The Lake Hancock projects are a critical part of the District’s recovery strategy for meeting the minimum flows in the upper Peace River, improving water quality in the river and protecting Charlotte Harbor.
Freeze Management Plan
New regulatory rules took effect for water use permit holders in the Dover/Plant City area with crops that require frost/freeze protection. The District developed the new rules in response to the unprecedented 11-day January 2010 freeze event, which resulted in more than 750 dry wells and more than 140 sinkholes. The new rules are one component of a District’s comprehensive freeze management plan, which was developed to significantly reduce impacts from future frost/freeze events.
Some of the major components of the plan include declaring a 256-square-mile water use caution area, establishing a minimum aquifer level and Minimum Aquifer Level Protection Zone, and developing a recovery strategy to help meet the minimum aquifer level. The goal of the recovery strategy is to reduce groundwater pumping for freeze protection by 20 percent within 10 years. This is to be accomplished through voluntary, incentive-based cooperative projects with area farmers through the District’s FARMS program to implement alternative freeze protection methods. FARMS is a cost-share program to reduce groundwater use through water conservation best management practices in agricultural operations. The District has increased its share of costs for projects that reduce groundwater pumping for frost/freeze protection in the Dover/Plant City area from 50 percent to up to 75 percent.
With less than 24 hours notice, the District was called upon by the Florida Division of Forestry (FDOF) to send staff and equipment to help fight two wildfires in northern Florida. It was the first time the District assisted FDOF with wildfires outside its 16-county region. Staff and equipment helped fight a wildfire in the 6,500-acre Santa Fe Swamp Conservation Area northeast of Gainesville as well as a series of wildfires in Flagler County.
There was a crisis closer to home as well. The District had to deal with its own disaster over the Independence Day weekend when a fire sprinkler flooded Building 4 at District Headquarters in Brooksville. Department staff responded quickly to move equipment out of harm’s way. About 80 people relocated to spaces in other Brooksville headquarters’ buildings. About 50 moved to the Tampa Service Office. People set up workstations — in conference rooms, cubicle corners and hallway cubbyholes. Insurance coverage helped offset equipment and financial losses, and staff members were back in their offices in a few months.
Gov. Rick Scott appointed two new Governing Board members during the year. Michael A. Babb began representing Hillsborough County and Randall S. Maggard came on board for Pasco County. The governor also reappointed Albert G. Joerger, H. Paul Senft Jr., and Douglas B. Tharp for additional two-year terms. During the Board’s election of new officers, Senft was elected chair, Hugh M. Gramling was elected vice chair, Tharp was elected secretary and Joerger was elected treasurer.
Organizational changes resulted in changes to the executive staff. The Governing Board appointed Blake Guillory as the new executive director. Guillory assembled his new executive team, including David Rathke, chief of staff; Laura Jacobs Donaldson, general counsel; Kurt Fritsch, director of the Administrative and Management Services Division; Mark Hammond, director of the Resource Management Division; Mike Holtkamp, director of the Operations, Maintenance and Construction Division, and Alba E. Más, director of the Regulation Division.
The economic downturn, reduced property values and other constraints led to significant budget cuts at the District. The Governing Board approved a FY2012 budget of $155.5 million, a 44.4 percent reduction from the FY2011 budget.
In light of the new budget realities, the Governing Board directed the District to move forward with organizational restructuring. The plan included staffing reductions needed to reduce operating expenses and meet budget limitations. The restructuring is expected to save the District more than $15 million per year. Part of the plan includes realigning staff based on the work the District needs to accomplish as part of its core mission, to increase efficiency and reduce duplication of effort.
Moving into 2012, the District is poised to meet its core mission responsibilities in the areas of water supply, flood protection, water quality and natural systems, with a leaner and more efficient organizational structure.
Left to right: Lake Panasoffkee continued to improve in response to the 10-year, $26.9 million restoration. Projects at Lake Hancock will improve flows and water quality in the upper Peace River. New regulatory rules took effect as part of the District’s freeze management plan for eastern Hillsborough County. District staff joined the Florida Forest Service to help fight fires in northern Florida. A sprinkler malfunction flooded Building 4 at District Headquarters.