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Testing the waves

Briley Bergen is too young to remember when Tampa Bay was so polluted public health officials routinely closed beaches to swimmers during the summer.

But the 14-year-old Valrico girl, the 1997 U.S. Swimming National Champion for the 15K open water distance, wants to make sure those days do not return.

"We all have to do our share to take care of the ocean," said Bergen, a favorite in Saturday's Tampa Bay Open Water Challenge. "It is the little things, like not using non-biodegradable Styrofoam cups when you are on the water, that make a difference."

The little things have made a big difference for Bergen and the other 400 or so swimmers expected to hit the water in the second annual Open Water Challenge. Thousands of anglers, wind surfers, boaters and sailors who regularly use Florida's largest open water estuary also benefit from the improvements.

Water quality is better today than it has been in decades, and, if the current trend continues, things will only get better.

"We are very fortunate," said Peter Clark of Tampa BayWatch, the organization sponsoring the 5K swim. "There are very few estuaries in the country that can document the improvements that Tampa Bay has."

When Clark first came to town in the early 1980s, swimmers took a significant health risk venturing in the bay's nutrient-rich waters.

"The turning point was when the city of Tampa upgraded the Hooker's Point wastewater treatment plant," Clark said. "It took a few years, but eventually the algae started to decline and the seagrasses started to come back."

Other cities around the bay followed Tampa's lead, and as the discharge of pollutants decreased, water quality steadily improved.

"In the last six years, we have seen 4,000 acres of seagrass come back," Clark said. "This is good news to the fishermen who target the species that use those grass beds."

The seagrasses also act as a natural filtration system. The more grass, the cleaner the water will be. So anglers and swimmers share a common interest in the health of the grass beds.

"As water quality continues to improve, we'll see the return of certain shellfish species," Clark said. "Hopefully, someday we'll be able to go gather scallops again in areas that they disappeared from in the '60s."

These tasty mollusks are a good indicator of water quality. Each summer, BayWatch sponsors the "Great Bay Scallop Search," and last year's event produced a record 67 scallops.

Clark hopes the scallop search and the Open Water Challenge will help focus attention on how far the bay has come and how much work needs to be done.

"All of these big bodies of water have the same problem," veteran open water swimmer Elliot Schofield said. "It is good to see people are working on it."

Schofield, 75, is the oldest entrant returning to the Open Water Challenge. The Palm Harbor man has completed the 28-mile swim around Manhattan and is no stranger to the trials of a long, open water race. "You wouldn't believe the stuff I used to have to swim through training in Long Island Sound," he said.

Saturday's swimmers may have to contend with currents and waves, but floating garbage should not be a problem.

Last year's race, which attracted more than 230 swimmers, went off without incident. This year, Clark hopes even more people will pay $25 to get a little exercise and help save the bay.

"I think the race is a great change of pace," said 27-year-old Jon Sacovich, who swam in the 1988 Olympics for Guam. "The great thing about open water is that you not only compete against other swimmers, but you also have to deal with currents and weather conditions."

Sacovich, who finished second last year with a time of 54 minutes, said he wasn't familiar with the bay's recent history.

"I had no idea the bay used to be so polluted," he said. "But I'm glad they did something to take care of it or else we wouldn't have this swim."