The 40th Earth Day Thursday is a good time for Tampa Bay to step back and appreciate the bigger environmental picture. More subdivisions, shopping centers and roads cram our formerly rural areas. Watering restrictions have become a way of life. The attraction of waterfront living has put our coastal ecosystems under increasing pressure. But over the long run the region also has made many gains.
As the Times' Craig Pittman reported this week, air and water pollution have dropped significantly since the 1970s. The reduction in ozone levels has improved air quality. The region dumps about half as much nitrogen into Tampa Bay as it did in the 1970s. The area also has developed new drinking water sources to cut its reliance on groundwater pumping.
None of these achievements were cheap or came about by accident. Thanks to a concerted effort by environmentalists and regulators, the federal, state and local governments all imposed new measures to better protect the environment. Tampa opened a new treatment facility and quit dumping untreated sewage into the bay. New protections for air, water and wildlife at least blunted the worst effects of the population boom.
The lesson is clear to anyone who has enjoyed the bay area waters over the past 40 years. Communities can enhance and protect their natural resources if they keep plugging along multiple fronts. What Florida doesn't need is the Legislature eroding those efforts. For example, the House is pushing a bill that would block communities like Pinellas County from imposing summertime bans on fertilizer use. Stormwater runoff laden with fertilizer is now a leading source of pollution in Tampa Bay, but in Tallahassee lawmakers want to undo the progress that has been made.
It is often hard to take a step back, given the constant efforts to weaken growth management and pave the way for more development. But taking the long view as Earth Day approaches, there has been considerable progress in ways not measured in housing starts, development orders and population gains: The air is cleaner and Tampa Bay is clearer than they have been in a long time.