In a region where bulldozers change the landscape daily, the preservation of the northern Hillsborough River wilderness is something of marvel.
The Florida Aquarium’s Associate Animal Curator Eric Hovland puts it well when he says, “We are doing a lot of things right” in protecting the river.
But luck also has played a role.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District bought and preserved much of the upper reaches of the Hillsborough, but saving wilderness was not its original focus. Much of the land was acquired for flood-control purposes after the devastating floods of Hurricane Donna in 1960.
However, the river’s ecological welfare soon became a district priority, and the two goals often complemented each other.
By acquiring the land and preventing development along the northern Hillsborough, the district allowed the river to ebb and flow naturally, preventing flooding while also protecting the river.
Less beneficial to the environment was the construction of the Tampa Bypass Canal, designed to divert river water to Tampa Bay during times of flood. Its excavation damaged nearby springs and largely replaced the Palm River, which flows into McKay Bay, diminishing water quality. Still, the 14-mile canal did not unduly harm the Hillsborough River, and the canal now also serves as a source of drinking water for Tampa.
Given the havoc such engineering feats have wreaked on the Everglades and so many other Florida resources, it is remarkable the Hillsborough River retains so much of its natural splendor.
Also deserving credit is the Thomas family, owners of the 14,000-acre Two Rivers Ranch. Their stewardship has kept a large stretch of the river above the Hillsborough River State Park intact. The Thomas family donated the land that became the park in 1936, and in 1973 provided the land for the Fort Foster replica.
As the Department of Agriculture noted when it presented Two Rivers the Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award in 1999, before the late Wayne Thomas began acquiring the tract in 1932, it had been largely clear cut. The family launched a long-term reforestation effort, which replenished the soil, prevented runoff and provided wildlife habitat.
The family runs the Crystal Springs Preserve, an environmental sanctuary and education center in Pasco County. Thousands of students visit Crystal Springs Preserve to learn about wildlife and water conservation.
The spring, once a popular but sometimes abused swimming hole, discharges 30 million gallons of water a day and boosts the Hillsborough’s flow significantly.
The ranch sells some of the spring’s water to a bottled-water company. Some object to the practice, but the withdrawals are regulated and the effects on the river monitored.
The Hillsborough River actually originates in the in the massive Green Swamp, which covers more than 500,000 acres in Pasco, Polk, Lake, Sumter and Hernando counties.
The Green Swamp is not, as its name suggests, a marshland, but a mosaic of cypress wetlands, pine uplands and pastures. The sprawling watershed is a critical hydrological resource, vital to Central Florida’s environment and water supply.
As the Southwest Florida Water Management explains, the Green Swamp watershed replenishes the Floridan aquifer system, the primary source of drinking water for most Floridians, and is the headwaters of four major rivers: the Hillsborough, Withlacoochee, the Ocklawaha, and the Peace.
In 1974, Florida officials declared more than 300,000 acres of the Green Swamp as an “Area of Critical State Concern,” which requires development to undergo greater review, but does not prohibit construction.
The water district, fortunately, has acquired more than 110,000 acres of the unique water resource, which the public can explore in the various parks of the Green Swamp Preserve. However, development still remains a threat to sections of this hydrological wonder in the middle of one of the fastest-growing section of Florida.
In Florida, with its non-stop construction, it is never wise to claim environmental victory. But the preservation of so much of the northern reaches of the Hillsborough River represents an accomplishment that, with wise management and good luck, should serve and delight Central Florida residents for generations to come.
Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune