STORM: Volunteer Army

Hillsborough County, Fla., lines up a large force of citizen helpers to support cleanup, monitoring and restoration of waterways

Hillsborough County surrounds Florida’s Tampa Bay and is 84 percent unincorporated. “Everything around here eventually drains to the Bay,” notes David Glicksberg, an environmental manager for the county. That includes three major rivers — the Hillsborough, the Alafia and the Little Manatee — numerous smaller streams and creeks, and a few hundred lakes.

Protecting local waters would be a big job for any agency, and far too big for the 22 staff members in the county’s stormwater management section. But Hillsborough has mobilized and coordinates thousands of volunteers who monitor lakes, streams and ponds, perform cleanups and restoration projects, and “adopt” stormwater ponds.

John McGee, who coordinates the county’s stormwater and environmental education, says volunteers can make a dramatic difference. “When they’re organized, they can really turn a pond around,” he says.

Hillsborough also supports volunteer efforts with high-quality information. A collaborative online watershed atlas the county pioneered is now being imitated by other Florida counties and will soon be part of a statewide “seamless” Internet atlas.

Dramatic success

Adopt-a-Pond, the biggest and best known of Hillsborough’s environmental initiatives, is a flagship program that brings in new volunteers every year. It was started in 1991 as part of compliance with the county’s first NPDES MS4 permit.

Social marketing research at the state level showed that home-owners were interested in pond health and appearance — and in increased property values — but were put off by the perceived need for specialized knowledge. The county killed two birds with one stone, using one program to meet permit requirements for education, and for inspection and maintenance.

It was a new idea that took several tries to get funded, but finally the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) approved a grant, and the district has supported the program every year since. Ponds that qualify must be owned and maintained by the county, or privately owned with at least one drainage easement dedicated to the county. Volunteer groups make three-year commitments and must have a designated coordinator.

To get things started, staff identified ponds that needed help and solicited homeowner groups to help. In the early years, staff provides guidance, labor and mechanical assistance (through the street maintenance department) to groups that organize a cleanup day, and guidance and native plants for pond plantings.

“We have a lot of groups that really buy into the program, and the changes can be dramatic,” says McGee. “We’ve seen ponds that were once completely choked by algae, ponds that were causing fish kills, completely turn around and become ponds with good water clarity, lots of native plants, healthy fish populations, and wading birds, alligators — you name it.” McGee holds an annual contest for best-maintained pond and has put out calendars with photos of the best ponds. He always has plenty of good candidates.

Gearing up

In 1999, the program won a Pollution Recovery Fund grant and purchased an all-terrain excavator and a 10-cubic-yard dump truck for use in pond cleanups. Staff positions were created to operate the new equipment.

Adopt-a-Pond now has 300 active homeowner groups, and the mailing list reaches more than 5,000. There ­have been some changes as the program matures. The stormwater department no longer solicits to form groups, since word-of-mouth and passive actions like the Web site do a fine job.

Financial commitment to the program has increased, and a stormwater utility fee now provides much of it. In 2008, the fee will provide $133,000 and the cooperative SWFWMD funding will add $25,000. Program expenses include the workbooks, plant identification materials, and other items given to new groups (with a total value of about $100), the use of equipment, staff tim­e spent training groups, and native plants given to groups for pond plantings.

The staff has learned some tricks when it comes to working with homeowner groups. For example, planting sessions are limited to two hours. “Experience has shown that residents are more apt to attend an event with a definite end, and the average pond group member tends to lose enthusiasm and energy after this time anyway,” McGee says.

With a history going back 15 years, a record of dramatic turnarounds, and participation that is still increasing, the Adopt-a-Pond program is an unqualified success.

An eye on things

Beyond Adopt-a-Pond, Hills-borough works with SWFWMD and regional colleges to maintain a network of well-trained volunteers that does monthly onsite testing for water clarity and other parameters. They collect, freeze, and drop off monthly samples that are analyzed for phosphorus, nitrogen, chlorophyll and other indicators. It’s a little like a Neighborhood Watch program for surface waters.

The Lake Management program has about 85 volunteers. Hillsborough coordinates training events, sampling equipment and convenient sample drop-off points, with freezers. To support the program, the county has a contract with the University of Florida. “We actually pay them to have a presence here,” says Glickberg. “They do the actual training and pick up the samples for analysis.”

Stream Waterwatch is a separate but parallel program. Training is more rigorous: Volunteers must attend at least four training sessions in their first year, and they are trained to do quarterly habitat and benthic macroinvertebrate surveys.

The monthly testing is done at three stream locations and includes turbidity, temperature, pH and dissolved oxygen testing in addition to sample collection. There are 35 active volunteers. Hillsborough Community College provides training and analysis in a manner similar to the way the university works with Lake Management.

Pond Watch is a subset of Adopt-a-Pond and doesn’t seem as popular as the other monitoring programs. “We created Pond Watch to train Adopt-a-Pond volunteers to do the same thing as our other volunteer monitors,” says McGee, “but we only have about 15 that submit samples regularly out of 30 we’ve trained. We think it’s less popular because ponds don’t change all that much and people lose interest.”

Nevertheless, Pond Watch, along with the other volunteer monitor programs, is providing valuable data to measure the effects of environmental programs and direct future efforts. “We’re working on budget and logistics to do more with the data we have and are gathering — where and how to sample, with what frequency,” McGee says.

Working with others

The Hillsborough County Watershed Atlas (www.hillsborough. is another popular county initiative. Working with SWFWMD and the Florida Center for Community Design and Research, stormwater staff built a lake atlas, using data from the Lake Management program, as a way to make more information available to the public.

“At the time, the Internet was getting bigger,” says Glicksberg, “so we decided to try a Web site. We laid out the sample data and other lake information, and we had an anthropology student collect oral histories of the lakes and put those in, too. Then we wanted to publish the other data we were collecting from other monitoring programs, and the site evolved into a watershed atlas.”

The Center for Community Design worked with the county to create the Web site and worked out protocols for automatically uploading data from agencies like the Florida Fish and Wildlife Marine Research Institute. Almost two-dozen entities now contribute information to the atlas.

“It’s a lot more than a GIS,” says McGee. “We use a GIS to display the data, but it’s also a cultural resource and a digital library, and it has a big educational component.” The site averaged more than 7,000 visitors and 2,000 downloads per weekend in April and May 2008. Other counties followed Hillsborough’s lead, developing their own sites. Eventually, all these sites will serve as local portals to a seamless, statewide atlas.

Next generation

Volunteers are so important to Hillsborough County’s stormwater management plans that the depart-ment is recruiting and training the next generation. The county deploys Officer Snook, a human in a silvery fish costume, to second grade classes to teach the issues and language of stormwater with an interactive presentation.

The Stormwater Ecologist program for older students has three phases. In Phase I, staff members bring a watershed model to the classroom and use it to work through a critical thinking exercise that demonstrates the effects of management choices on downstream resources.

Phase II is a field trip to a wetland or storm structure near the classroom. “The second phase is a little harder,” says McGee. “We might make multiple visits and really try to teach. In Phase III, we help them with a project, usually pond restoration or storm drain marking. Stormwater Ecologist is a way to work serious students into ­our monitoring and Pond Watch programs. It’s hard for them to really participate otherwise.”

To entice adult volunteers, the county offers Pond Walk, a free one- hour tour to learn about neighborhood ponds and wetlands. It’s a low-commitment way for homeowners to see how they might get involved in pond management.

Leveraging resources

Tampa Bay is home to manatees — large marine mammals that need all the help they can get. They’ve been on the endangered list since 1967. And alligators often move into well-tended stormwater ponds.

“If there’s water around here, there’s usually an alligator nearby,” Glicksberg says. “But they’re not really that aggressive. We’ve never had an attack or even a threat.”

By managing county waters responsibly and helping county residents help themselves, Hills-borough County’s stormwater experts are leveraging their resources and having a positive effect far out of proportion to the size of the team. In these days of declining budgets and increasing environmental threats, that is good news indeed.


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