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Five-year Reclamation Project Puts the ‘Beach’ Back in Apollo Beach

Posted on October 24, 2016

By Libby Baldwin,

It’s almost as if Florida decided to take the day off.

A wispy breeze ruffles the tops of carefully selected native plants that decorate the sand dunes. The day’s humidity is blissfully absent for now, with temps in the low 70s.

Only the cries of seabirds and murmurs of gentle waves arriving at the shore caress the silence. A glance across the sun-drenched bay provides a panoramic view that includes the Tampa and St. Petersburg city skylines, with MacDill Air Force Base in between.

It’s morning at the new Apollo Beach Nature Preserve.

When many Floridians think of the beach, they envision hundreds of towels and umbrellas, children darting through the crowd and tanning, oil-clad teenagers huddled over smartphone screens, oblivious to the natural beauty of their back yard.

The completion of this new preserve — a project five years in the making — offers an alternative: a quiet retreat that captures the essence of why so many choose to live here.

Hillsborough County officials and representatives will celebrate the official reopening of the preserve on Saturday (Oct. 22). The constant battering of the little beach area by storms and natural erosion washed it away. A $1.3 million project dredging up 11,000 cubic yards of sand from an adjacent channel brought it back, thanks to a collaborative effort between Apollo Beach citizens and county project managers.

Ross Dickerson, the section manager for the Hillsborough County Conservation and Environmental Lands Management department, described the project as “a great cooperation between the community and the county.”

For the community’s part, there was Len Berkstresser, the president of the Apollo Beach Waterway Improvement Group. He volunteers his time to maintain the surrounding channels. As a member of the Tampa Sailing Squadron, he had shared frustrations with other boaters about channels so shallow that only high tide allowed them to sail. It had been 23 years since the channels were dredged, and mariners are sure to be happy with the deeper waters.

Of course, there were a few bumps in the road.

“When we surveyed for sea grass, we found some growing in the footprint of where the breakwaters (designed to retain drifting sand) were being placed,” Dickerson said. “This was the first time that sea grass had ever been documented in the area, and we wanted to make sure their impacts were minimized.”

Berkstresser went into the project confident that it wouldn’t take more than a year.

“It took nearly six years for me and our board, during which time all of the original members stuck it out,” he said.

The Waterway Improvement Group raised about $350,000 from the community and local businesses.

“The original project was for dredging only, but within the first six months we realized it also needed to include the beach renourishment and restoration,” Berkstresser said.

Frank and Sharon Blonder of Apollo Beach live just down the street from the preserve, and remember well the old beach, where swimming wasn’t allowed.

“They’re putting the ‘beach’ back in Apollo Beach,” said Frank with a laugh, before he and Sharon resumed their bi-weekly bicycle ride.

On the other side of the newly seeded grassy area, with the Big Bend Power Station pumping dutifully in the background, Rey Gonzalez of Brandon stood patiently in the shallows. He was hoping to catch some fish for dinner, or maybe even an Atlantic sharp-nosed shark, averaging 3.5 feet long and not considered a threat to swimmers.

The sharks like to feed on large shrimp, which makes them taste “extra good,” said Gonzalez with a smile.

The fish wrangled here are hot to the touch, thanks to the power station. Dolphins can be seen just offshore, and of course, manatees make their appearances when the weather begins to cool.

New amenities include the redesigned 2-acre beach, an open play area, hiking trails, a volleyball court and a boardwalk.

“The biggest contrast between old and new is the fact that the preserve is now protected from erosion, and should be for many years to come,” Dickerson said.

Berkstresser pointed out that the preserve made it through both of the most recent storms, Hermine and Matthew, without losing any sand.

“We have invested many, many hours telling people about the project, doing fundraising events, conducting quarterly ‘town hall’ meetings … it has been much more than we anticipated,” he said. “But, judging from the excitement about the dredging results and the new park’s usage, it was worth it.”

The preserve, located at 6767 Surfside Blvd., has 50 parking spaces and is free and open to the public.


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