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Clean Tampa Bay Should Put Some of Us to Shame

As many of us struggle to combat polluted water from toxic agricultural discharges (e.g. Stuart), we should look to Tampa Bay as an example of restoration that really does wonders.

Tampa Bay’s cleaned up waters provide a role model for estuaries everywhere. Here’s a new summary from BaySoundings.com. Other communities should insist on no less a good job eh?

Reprinted with permission from Bay Soundings.
By Victoria Parsons

With the national organization Restore America’s Estuaries (R.A.E.) hosting its sixth annual conference at the Tampa Convention Center Oct. 20 to 25, we thought it would be a good time to see how Tampa Bay stacks up against other estuaries around the country.

On nearly every measure – from water quality to restoration and conservation — the home team plays a strong game. “I don’t think most people in the Tampa Bay region realize just how far we have come in protecting our namesake body of water,” says Capt. Peter Clark, executive director of Tampa Bay Watch and vice chair of R.A.E. “Forty years ago, parts of the bay were so polluted that 60 Minutes taped a segment showing noxious sewage off Bayshore Boulevard. We still have a problem child — Old Tampa Bay — but every other bay segment meets or exceeds water quality standards.”

The Tampa Bay Estuary Program tracks water quality in key bay segments with a “traffic light” graphic highlighting areas where water quality standards are met in green, segments that need extra attention in yellow and using red to show where thresholds have not been achieved.

A 2007 report from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration named Boston Harbor and Tampa Bay as the only two “improving” estuaries in the country. Boston ended decades of wastewater discharges into its harbor by building a $3.4 billion pipe to carry wastewater offshore. In Tampa Bay, a decades-long public-private partnership has resulted in dramatic cuts to nitrogen loads with a corresponding increase in seagrass beds.

The challenge, of course, is maintaining those standards as the region’s population continues to increase, notes Suzanne Cooper, principal planner for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and its Agency on Bay Management. “We’ve managed to cut nutrients by more than 400 tons annually since 1995 even as our population has continued to grow,” she said. “It’s getting harder every year though. We’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit. We must continue to reduce nitrogen loading so that our region can prosper.” (See related story.)

Across the country, it’s clear that development is the leading cause of water quality and habitat degradation. “More people equal more problems, but people still want to live on coasts,” Clark says. “More than half of the people in the United States live within 100 miles of the coast and coastal communities are growing three times faster than counties elsewhere in the country.”

Restore America’s Estuaries, based outside Washington D.C., represents an alliance of eleven community-based conservation organizations working to protect and restore the vital habitats. They range from Tampa Bay to Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island on the east coast and Puget Sound to San Francisco Bay on the west. (The National Estuary Program, a federal program administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, encompasses 28 estuaries located along U.S. coasts and in Puerto Rico that have been designated as estuaries of national significance. Some, including Tampa Bay and San Francisco, have members of both groups working on protecting and restoring their bays.)

Photo courtesy of Save The Bay. The Golden Gate bridge defines San Francisco Bay but natural habitats make it one of America’s top estuaries.

Of course, it’s difficult to compare estuaries on an apple-to-apple basis because they’re more like tomatoes and bananas. Some are very large with multiple government agencies involved — Chesapeake Bay’s watershed spans six states and Galveston Bay Foundation in Texas works with 94 separate government agencies. Some estuaries, including Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound and Tampa Bay, give themselves report cards every year, while others make it more difficult for residents to track changes in their bays. Even the issues are diverse. Some estuaries consider toxic contaminants to be a key issue, others are mostly concerned with nutrients, pH or fecal coliform.

In fact, only one feature seems to be consistent across all estuaries: Stormwater, flowing off roofs and over yards and parking lots, is now a more important threat than industrial plants or even wastewater treatment facilities. “It’s much easier to clean up water coming out of a pipe (single source) than it is to capture and treat millions of gallons of stormwater,” Cooper said.

Here’s a look at the estuaries whose representatives will be in Tampa for the R.A.E. convention:

Chesapeake Bay Foundation represents the largest estuary in the nation. Recent reports indicate that the bay is showing signs of improvement with a new focus on short-term milestones rather than multi-decade goals. Still, it scored a D+ from the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science last year.

Coalition for Coastal Louisiana is focused on protecting three million acres of wetlands — the nation’s only true riverine delta — even as the state loses 25 square miles of land to erosion and sea level rise every year. That habitat is critical to the entire Gulf of Mexico, supporting 25% of the nation’s commercial fisheries. Although it’s been hammered by everything from hurricanes to oil spills, the terrible damage has resulted in increased focus (and funding) on the region’s issues.

Galveston Bay Foundation reports relatively good water quality because the bay is shallow, well-mixed and well-aerated with most problems concentrated in the western tributaries where municipal and industrial development are concentrated. A unique effort to restore intertidal marsh involves raising the bay bottom through the use of terraces, mounds and levees followed by transplanting native marsh vegetation to those areas.

Save the Bay is an advocate for action to protect and improve water quality in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Once considered the most industrialized estuary in the world, the bay is battling its way back from centuries of human impacts. Save the Bay focuses on restoring critical habitat and educating residents, particularly students, about the value of the bay and the effect of human impacts on it.

North Carolina Coastal Federation is a unique organization that covers the entire coast of North Carolina – a total of 2.4 million acres of estuaries, sounds and tidal creeks. Water quality depends upon the degree of development in upstream watersheds but the trend is downward as more people move to the coast. To protect water quality, the federation is involved in building living shorelines, restoring oyster reefs, converting farms back to wetlands and low-impact development.

People for Puget Sound is a community-based organization that implements scientifically based restoration and conservation initiatives in the nation’s second-largest estuary. Within the last 10 years, iconic Puget Sound species such as orcas, Chinook salmon and steelhead have been placed on the Endangered Species list. Toxic contaminants also are a particular concern.

Save the Bay was formed in 1961 to stop developers from filling shallow inshore waters in San Francisco Bay. Water quality has improved over the past 40 years but the rate of improvement has slowed. Most popular food fish are recommended only for limited consumption and bacterial contamination is still a problem during the rainy season. Large-scale habitat restoration has transformed hay fields back to tidal marsh but 90% of wetlands have been lost over the last 150 years.

Save the Sound, a program of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, targets the Long Island Sound which stretches 110 miles between New York and Connecticut. A recent report card gave restoration and protection efforts among the two states a grade of C+, with good marks for coastal habitats and beach litter, but low grades for raw sewage.