Ulele Springs (Hillsborough River), Florida

In 1907, the City of Tampa built a pumping station at Ulele Spring, near the banks of the Hillsborough River. In 1910 the Tampa Streetcar Company built the hub of Tampa’s streetcar system and this beautiful stretch of river quickly filled in with heavy industrial uses. A fish processing plant, a shipyard, a dredging operation and the City of Tampa’s Police Station and Maintenance Facility ultimately choked off access to the Hillsborough River for the surrounding neighborhoods and filled in the natural spring run. In 2010, a project was initiated by the Ecosphere Restoration Institute to recreate this natural spring run. Approximately 500 feet of stream was restored (the spring drained through a pipe) and the spring ‘boil’ and associated ecosystem was also expanded in size and enhanced. The engineering and design portion of this project was funded, in part, through the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership’s NOAA Community-based Restoration Program. Today, Ulele Spring’s shines as the focal piece of the City of Tampa’s new Water Work’s Park along the Riverwalk and is a natural feature that is drawing visitors world-wide to the area and enhancing, not only the habitat for fish and wildlife, but providing positive economic and recreational opportunities for years to come.

Resource Description:
Ulele Spring is located in downtown Tampa and it is the only natural spring within the urban portion of the City. It is a jewel that was not functioning as it should for nearly a century, in that the edge of the spring was concreted in decades ago, and the spring run was filled in and replaced with a pipe. Now, freshwater flows of 672,000 gallons per day flow from the spring to the Hillsborough River. This spring water flow enhances vegetation and creates prime habitat for a variety of fish, crustaceans and mammals. To date over 18 species of fish and crustaceans have been documented within the newly restored spring run; in addition, manatees now frequently visit this spring along with their offspring.

Project Description:
The primary project objective was to remove the existing pipe and re-create a meandering stream system along with the associated wetland community down to the Hillsborough River. The Hillsborough River flows into Tampa Bay, an EPA priority watershed. In addition, the spring boil area was expanded to its former size by the removal of the concrete wall coupled with excavation of the banks to expand the wetland community, this newly restored wetland area was planted with native wetland vegetation. In spite of these anthropogenic activities, the spring boil area is very healthy with crystal clear waters that support native vegetation including ell grass which is unique to the Hillsborough River (while it is a native species, scientists are unaware of any other ell grass populations within the lower river system). These activities now allow fish to seek refuge in the spring run, provide wetland (estuarine habitat, specifically oligohaline environs) within the urban core of the city, and provide a unique area for the citizens to enjoy, as well as providing educational opportunities. In addition, this portion of the Hillsborough River has been completely hardened with seawalls, so this small, but important restoration project also included a living shoreline feature which provides the only location with native wetland vegetation. In addition, the continuous source of freshwater (75 degrees year round) provides critical refuge for fish, and even manatees, as they already have been documented within the new spring run.

Project Benefits/Outcomes:
The restored Ulele Springs is providing native wetland vegetation and provide oligohaline
habitat for fish and mammals. To date, numerous native fish and wildlife has been observed within the basin, which is staring to mimic the anticipated species richness and diversity of a natural spring run entering an estuarine ecotone.

A “living shoreline” feature along the existing seawall was completed as well as the restoration of the former spring run (May 30th, 2014). On May 31st the third a final volunteer planting event was coordinated by Ecosphere; over 65 volunteers installed all of the estuarine plants within the newly restored basin and “living shoreline” feature. The very next day manatees were sighted within the basin, in spite of the fact that the four-foot Floating Turbidity Barriers (FTB) were still in place at the spring run entrance; the manatees were observed swimming over the FTB to access the spring. Although continuous monitoring of the basin was not possible; five different manatees were photographed within the basin since it was opened; all had to swim over the FTB. In addition, numerous native fish and wildlife have been observed within the basin. The first fish seine yielded over 18 species of fish or crustaceans; all of these species had to swim under or around the FTB, which was removed (10/27/2014); this natural opening now allows more species richness and diversity to occur within the estuarine basin.
While longer-term outcomes are still being measured, the initial data indicates that this restored spring run is allowing fish and mammals direct access to the spring flows and should provide critical oligohaline conditions which are extremely important to juvenile fish, as well as a providing a warm water winter refuge for endangered Florida manatees. In June 2014, a female manatee and her calf were seen in the basin. The original target was to have a minimum of 15 species of fish within the boil and the spring run; this goal has already been exceeded. The monitoring activities have demonstrated that this restored spring run is providing the ecological benefits anticipated; in fact, it is exceeding the species diversity and more and more manatees have been documented utilizing the spring run. On February 17th a pod of manatees, consisted of an adult, a sub-adult and three calves, were observed feeding within the basin. The adult was identified as TB078, an old female whose first documented sighting dates back to 1983. She’s a Tampa Bay regular and has been seen with at least 12 calves over the years. She’s also know to usually have a whole raft of calves surrounding her (all of which cannot possibly be hers); a real life manatee matriarch.

This project provided a very unique opportunity for education and public outreach during the construction phase and will continue to do so in the future, in the fact that it is situated in the urban core of the City of Tampa with three schools (Blake High School, Steward Middle School and Oak Grove Elementary school) directly across the river. Ecosphere Restoration Institute coordinated with the staff from the middle and high schools and they are very interested in utilizing the restored spring for environmental educational purposes and assisted with the installation of the native plants. In addition, there are tremendous, long-term outreach opportunities. Ulele Spring’s is centrally located as a focal piece of the City of Tampa’s new Water Work’s Park along the Riverwalk, which includes a water park, restaurant, festival lawn, performance pavilion, picnic and viewing areas, and more. These are providing the general public access to enjoy the view of the newly restored spring run and basins and to learn through educational signage (see photos below) about the importance of natural springs and native wetland vegetation to provide habitat for fisheries and mammals. Ulele Springs is a unique natural feature that is drawing visitors world-wide to the area and enhancing, not only the habitat for fish and wildlife, but providing positive economic and recreational opportunities for years to come. In fact, the adjacent restaurant is now the hottest ticket in town. The surrounding area is what city officials hope will be Tampa’s next big urban reclamation project.

As an extension of this project, on May 28th, 2014, SARP, the Southeast Watershed Forum, and Ecosphere Restoration Institute, facilitated a workshop titled, “Exploring Best Practices for the Lower Hillsborough River.” The workshop was hosted by the City of Tampa Planning & Development Department and provided an opportunity for local stakeholders to collaborate and share ideas about ways to continue to preserve and protect the lower Hillsborough River. It included an overview of planned activities for slated development on the river, as well as expert presentations on low impact development (LID) techniques and a hands-on small group mapping exercise to identify potential target areas where LID/best practices could protect water quality and habitat. The river is also the focus of the city’s new and expanding river walk, providing recreational and economic opportunities for people living, working and visiting the area and can showcase how low impact development enhances local quality of life. The restoration of Ulele Springs was a main focus of the discussion and workshop participants were asked to keep protections and management of this resource and other areas of potential “prime habitat” in mind when exploring best management practices and considering key partners, potential funding sources, and possible next steps moving forward.

The SARP/NOAA CRP funded project was initiated in 2010 and completed in the summer of 2014. Post project monitoring was begun in September and will continue for three years. The parameters that are tracked include water quality (temp, DO, salinity, conductivity, flow rates), manatee observations (photo-documentation, enumeration, behavior patterns), and boat traffic (type, size, speed, direction, hull configuration); all of this data is summarized on a monthly basis. This data will be used to assess the ecological benefits of the spring as well as to formulate a no-wake zone to further protect visiting manatees.

SARP, NOAA, Ecosphere Restoration Institute, City of Tampa, Southwest Florida Water Management District, Ecosphere Restoration Institute, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Tampa Bay Estuary Program, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County, and numerous volunteers

2015 Waters to Watch