District wetland scientist celebrated for contributions

As part of the St. Johns River Water Management District’s core missions, our work includes protecting, restoring and preserving natural systems, and supporting wetlands’ natural hydrologic and ecologic functions.

Our agency is fortunate to have some of the most dedicated and respected wetland scientists in the country, working every day to support this mission. One of them, Kim Ponzio, is considered a “wetland legend.”

Recognized twice this year by the Society of Wetlands Scientists for her ongoing contributions to wetland research, she also contributed to a new book, History of Wetland Science: Perspectives from Wetland Leaders. The book was originally to be called Wetland Legends, which is an equally apt title for Ponzio, who has been an ambassador for the District and wetland science around the globe.

“The book captures the early development of wetland science through short autobiographical essays written by early wetland forebearers,” Ponzio says. “It’s a collection of articles about how many of us became wetland scientists.”

In her essay, titled “A job so amazing, I can’t believe I get paid to do this,” she writes: “Many of us didn’t start out wanting to be wetland scientists. In my generation, we never really had a course of study that was particular to becoming a wetland scientist. So, when we were little kids and everyone was saying they wanted to be an astronaut or a doctor or fireman, nobody was saying, ‘Hey, I want to be a wetland scientist when I grow up!’”

In fact, Ponzio was a pre-med student at Florida Atlantic University when she took some biology and botany courses and discovered that she preferred collecting and identifying plants than studying the human anatomy.

Kim Ponzio conducts a survey of vegetation at the headwaters of the St. Johns River.

Kim Ponzio conducts a survey of vegetation at the headwaters of the St. Johns River.

Upon graduating, Ponzio landed a job as an environmental technician at South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) where she learned to operate airboats while visiting sampling sites in the Everglades. One of her projects required her to monitor changes in cattail and sawgrass density along a nutrient gradient. She was in her element.

“I had just six months to figure out how to navigate to all six of our sampling sites – without a GPS, iPad, phone, or even a Loran C unit,” she recalls. “If you have ever been out in the northern Everglades, it truly is a river of grass and every turn on the airboat trail looks much the same.”

Ponzio says her adventures at SFWMD helped her develop as a wetland scientist. But it was the support of the St. Johns River Water Management District that allowed her to reach benchmarks that she never thought were possible. The District funded the cost of her master’s degree through its Educational Assistance Program and provided her the opportunity to conduct key wetland research in both the Ocala National Forest in Hopkins Prairie and in the Upper St. Johns River Basin working on wetland restoration and management.

Ponzio has also served in various leadership roles in the prestigious, international Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS) since 2007. She served as President of SWS in 2015–2016 and is now serving as the President of the SWS Professional Certification Program which certifies professional wetland scientists that have the education, experience, and ethics to assess and manage wetlands worldwide.

“Through the SWS, I’ve brought the wetland work of the District to people in Macedonia, Taiwan, Czech Republic, mainland China, UK and Germany,” Ponzio says. “Serving in SWS leadership has been one of the most rewarding things I have done in my professional life. It’s been a blast.”

Serving in SWS leadership has been one of the most rewarding things I have done in my professional life. It’s been a blast.

Kim Ponzio

The accolades didn’t stop there. The Society of Wetland Scientists Professional Certification Program (SWSPCP) designated Ponzio, along with fellow District wetland scientists Lance Hart, Barbara Hatchitt, Steve Miller and Michelle Reiber as Senior Professional Wetland Scientists (SPWS) through its Wetland Certification Program. While all five District employees have been certified since 1995 as Professional Wetland Scientists, the new “Senior” certification designates them as senior level. The new designation recognizes wetland professionals who have been working in the wetland field and have maintained the education, experience and ethics to be certified for at least 20 years. Only 480 Professional Wetland Scientists have the SPWS special designation in the entire U.S.

In November 2020, SWS selected Ponzio as a recipient of the special SWS 40th Anniversary Awards. During a virtual ceremony in December, she was recognized for her 13 years of “high level and sustained contributions to wetland research, practice, education, communication and support to the Society.”

Hear Ponzio explain the importance and value of wetlands and her work to protect and restore them on District lands in a Dec. 10, 2020, District webinar.

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