Alfred and Cindy Davis say they have a right to use, enjoy and navigate the Clam Bayou estuary they live on.
But, they say, neglect by the Environmental Protection Agency and clean-water violations by the city of St. Petersburg and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, are keeping them from doing so.
"Our principal concern, as one of a group of neighbors and friends concerned about Clam Bayou, is that we have seen a significant decline in the amount of sea life out there in the north basin. Mammals and dolphins were a common occurrence. They're gone. We have not seen any in the last four years," Al Davis said.
So the couple filed a federal lawsuit last month demanding water standards, monitoring equipment, and dredging and restoration of Clam Bayou.
The lawsuit contends that the EPA and Florida have failed to establish ambient water quality standards for all 309 Outstanding Florida Waters — waterways designated by the state to need higher protection. They include Clam Bayou and the Little Manatee River.
"Ambient water quality is telling you very little," said the Davises' attorney, Thomas W. Reese. Merely getting samples of water at random intervals and testing them does not gauge the contaminants that run into the bayou during a heavy rain.
It is the runoff from those heavy rains that is to blame for the contamination of Clam Bayou, said Reese, an environmental attorney.
"You want to see what's going on in a rain event. You need rain and flow gauges to determine how much rainwater is coming in," Reese said.
So, Reese said, the EPA needs to determine the ambient standard for Outstanding Florida Waters and then determine which of them fall below the standard or are degrading.
In the case of Clam Bayou, if data collected from stormwater discharge shows that the water quality has worsened, Reese said, "We have to dredge the bayou and make significant changes to the stormwater treatment systems."
That's where Swiftmud and the city of St. Petersburg enter the lawsuit. The suit contends that they are responsible for allowing all the contaminated freshwater runoff into the bayou.
While most of the bayou is in Gulfport, 99 percent of the runoff comes from St. Petersburg, Reese said.
The Davises want the city and Swiftmud to admit that their stormwater discharges have caused sediment to build up in Clam Bayou and to dredge it out, restoring the estuary to the depth it was in 1978, which was 3 to 5 feet.
Robyn Felix, Swiftmud media relations manager, said, "The district has conducted all of the necessary scientific studies and received the proper permits from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for the Clam Bayou Stormwater Treatment and Habitat Restoration Project.
"We believe this a good project that will restore much of Clam Bayou's ecosystem and improve water quality. We are more than happy to work with all of the appropriate parties in order to reach a compromise on the issue of establishing standards for pollutant discharges into Clam Bayou. However, the district has conducted numerous scientific studies that show additional dredging is not warranted."
Jeanne Hoffmann, the assistant city attorney who is handling the case for St. Petersburg, said, "We're reviewing the complaint and trying to determine the appropriate response. We have until the middle of August."
The EPA declined to specifically comment.
"Because the case is still being litigated, there is not much I can say about the allegations," said Davina Marraccini, a spokeswoman for Region IV.
The perception that the Davises are doing all of this just so they can get their boat in and out of the bayou isn't true, Reese said.
"We know that the sediment from stormwater runoff in St. Petersburg has covered the bottom where there used to be an active recreational and commercial fishery," Davis said.
"We are concerned about our own health and, obviously, access. We have sat through the promises of agencies, and they have not followed through," Davis said.