Dr. Brandt Henningsen received the 2018 Dr. Nancy Foster Award for Habitat Conservation for his 31 years of work restoring coastal ecosystems around Tampa Bay.

By Libby Baldwin

After 31 years with the Southwest Florida Management District, retiring Chief Advisory Environmental Scientist Dr. Brandt Henningsen is looking forward to watching the Tampa Bay coastal ecosystem thrive, thanks to 99 restoration projects completed over the decades by his ‘SWIM’ team.

SWIM, or Surface Water Improvement and Management, is a state-mandated program established by the Florida legislature in 1987.

Dr. Henningsen, now 66 and living in Wesley Chapel, was either project manager or co-manager for 58 of those 99 projects. His leadership has restored nearly 3,000 acres around Tampa Bay.

“I’ve always really enjoyed what I’ve had the opportunity to do,” he said. “I found a niche that I found productive and was giving back something to Tampa Bay and the earth’s ecosystems in general.”

His efforts, it turns out, were not going unnoticed.

Dr. Henningsen received an unexpected retirement gift when he was awarded the 2018 Dr. Nancy Foster Award for Habitat Conservation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“I am infinitely proud to have received this award,” said Dr. Henningsen of the honor, which recognizes exceptional achievement and dedication to habitat conservation in the coastal and marine environment. “It was a major surprise.”

SWIM has restored 7.2 square miles of various coastal habitats, much of it completely wiped out beforehand.

The team designed a restoration concept that Dr. Henningsen calls “restoring habitat mosaics,” using a combination of estuarine, freshwater wetland and upland habitats that will support plant and animal life for decades to come.

“Ecosystems aren’t any single type of habitat; it’s a combination of many that collectively provide opportunities for lots of different wildlife,” said Dr. Henningsen. “The goal is to put back as much diversity and complexity as we can and then let nature take the lead.”

The SWIM team began in 1989 with just over an acre of salt marsh planted on a delta south of Port Manatee. In 2015, it completed its largest project ever, the Rock Ponds Ecosystem Restoration project, which established more than 1,000 acres of habitat mosaics.

Its three land parcels, much of which had been cleared for farmland or mining, are now completely restored and linked by either water or mangrove forests.

Brand-new estuaries and wetlands were also created, establishing habitats ideally situated for birds, small woodland creatures and fish nurseries that will sustain new populations of snook, redfish and tarpon.

Out of nearly 40 applicants for the 2018 NOAA award, only two winners were chosen, but Dr. Henningsen said the credit should also go to Tampa Bay’s long history of environmental activism and thousands of people working together.

“I’d like to think that the projects I work on will endure way past when I shuffle off this mortal coil, and will keep being productive hopefully forever,” he said. “I like the idea of leaving something behind.”

For information, visit the Southwest Florida Water Management District Website or www.watermatters.org.