Following decades of abuse by stormwater runoff from urban development, industrial and domestic wastewater discharges, strip mining and agricultural drainage, the Lake Hancock watershed in Polk County, Fla., needed extensive wetlands and uplands restoration. Fortunately, the Polk County Board of County Commissioners and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) already had purchased more than 1,200 acres of the Circle B Bar Ranch in 2000, which included Banana Creek, the most polluted of three major tributaries to Lake Hancock. The problem also affected the water quality of the Peace River and Charlotte Harbor, a federally designated National Estuary.

Because the property was located close to most residents, the county decided to build an environmental education center and outdoor recreational facilities in addition to restoring the damaged wetland system. In 2006, using a plan developed by the county, SWFWMD restored 450 acres of freshwater marsh along Banana Creek. That resulted in immediate improvements in the water quality discharged to Lake Hancock. The county also planted wiregrass and long leaf pine to restore 130 acres of the adjacent uplands.

After building boardwalks and establishing trails on the property, the county began constructing an educational facility, which took three years to complete. Today, the 16,000-square-foot Nature Discovery Center complex, which was built with recycled and environmentally friendly materials, including a porous concrete parking lot, consists of a large public hall for meetings, workshops and presentations; an exhibit hall with information on water quality and the effects of stormwater pollution; a classroom building and a covered outdoor education area.

The $7.4 million land cost was shared between Polk County and SWFWMD, with an ad valorem tax funding Polk County's portion. Other wetlands funding came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Florida Department of Transportation and the Florida Legislature. Polk County Environmental Lands Program and SWFWMD funded the $7.8 million Nature Discovery Center construction. Additional construction and operational support was given by a variety of local, regional, state and federal sources.

Population: 586,000

Project: Wetlands and Uplands Restoration

Cost: $18 million

Date completed: November 2008

Agencies/contractors: Polk County Board of County Commissioners; Southwest Florida Water Management District

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