Hernando County’s multi-part plan to boost local waterways through artificial reef projects kicked off last month when more than 600 tons of concrete material were dumped into the Gulf of Mexico atop the existing Bendickson Reef.
On Sunday, the second part of the project — involving reef balls, or man-made concrete structures used to repair ailing reefs and promote healthy habitats for fish — got moving, too, much of it with the help of some unlikely volunteers.
Seventeen youth ages 12 to 18 from SCUBAnauts, a local marine science education program founded in 2001, gathered in Hernando Beach to create four reef balls to be dropped into the gulf next month.
County Commissioner Wayne Dukes says the structures will find their resting place in shallow waters, creating a reef fit for recreational activities, like fishing, snorkeling and diving, to help the county to live up to its newly adopted “Adventure Coast” slogan.
He says data from the state shows an $8 dollar return on every dollar spent on artificial reefs, resulting from increases in commercial and recreational water activities supported by the expansions.
“This is going to bring a lot more recreational opportunities to Hernando County, and that is good for the quality of life of our residents and tourists,” he said.
Dukes tipped his hat to the SCUBAnauts volunteers, whose involvement in the county’s plans began months ago, when they were enlisted by county waterways manager Keith Kolasa to do standardized underwater surveys of proposed reef sites.
While waterway projects are mostly fueled by the county’s $14 million BP settlement from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the gulf, county officials say those dollars are still stretched tight and only available in increments over a 15-year payout period.
Without SCUBAnauts, the county would have had to hire scientists to survey the sites for information required to get project permits and move forward, while services from the group were free.
“I give them all the credit. … They have helped us tremendously through this whole process,” Dukes said. “Their volunteer services have saved us both time and revenue.”
SCUBAnauts president and CEO Paul Foisy said in his mind, the partnership helps his organization just as much as it has helped the county.
“This isn’t something your typical teenager does, and a lot of them don’t even realize the magnitude of what they are doing,” Foisy said, adding that the group also does regular survey work in the Florida Keys. “We are all about hands-on experience. … This is that.”
SCUBAnauts member Diana Phillips, 15, said the best part about helping communities like Hernando County with waterway projects is knowing how long-lasting her work will be.
“Us being kids and being able to make something that will last hundreds of years is a big deal,” Phillips said. “It’s good for our future and the community’s future at the same time.”
Much of the funding for Sunday’s project came from 19-year-old Cole Kolasa, son of Keith Kolasa and a longtime SCUBAnauts member who now attends the University of Central Florida. Over the summer, he kayaked from the Florida Panhandle to the Everglades while blogging and collecting donations for the county’s reef projects.
Kolasa raised about $3,200, which was used to purchase the four reef ball molds used by SCUBAnauts, as well as concrete and other materials.
Once the reef balls are dropped, Foisy said, the SCUBAnauts members will return regularly to monitor them. Kolasa, a sophomore marine biology major, said he will, too, and hopes to have the university study the sites and their effect on seawater in the area.
“It’s really exciting what is happening, especially because I grew up in Hernando County and now I am able to do research and actually be able to make a difference and see results,” he said. “I’m excited to see change actually happening.”
Contact Megan Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @mareevs.