In the late 1990s, when Tampa Bay’s “Water Wars” raged, wells were pumping so much water from underground that some lakes and wetlands had begun to dry out.
Two decades on from that parched period, regional water officials say a key recovery area — encompassing Pinellas, Pasco and most of Hillsborough counties — is healthy again. The Southwest Florida Water Management District announced Tuesday that it intends to declare a long-running recovery strategy for the Northern Tampa Bay Water Use Caution Area is no longer needed.
“By all measures, this is such an incredible model of what we can do as a community to reinforce and maintain a healthy environment,” said Rebecca Smith, the district’s governing board secretary, in a statement.
Regulators credit a partnership with Tampa Bay Water, the regional utility that was introduced to bring an end to the “Water Wars” and supplies drinking water to Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, along with the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey.
Data from the two organizations show that 11 wellfields in the caution zone used to produce as much as 160 million gallons per day. Now the area averages just above 80 million gallons per day.
When Tampa Bay Water formed, the utility consolidated those wellfields under a single permit. With the help of hundreds of millions of dollars from the Water Management District, the supplier invested in other ways of producing drinking water, including desalinating from the bay and skimming river water.
“Prior to 1998, we were a groundwater only utility,” said Warren Hogg, water use permitting manager for Tampa Bay Water, speaking to the Water Management District board last month.
Scientists monitored hundreds of sites in lake and wetland areas to track the recovery, he said. They noted that some wildlife and plants returned. Upon a closer review, according to Hogg, the analysts found that many of the sites had recovered fully and dozens more improved as much as they likely can with new development near the wellfields. Eight sites showed some continued effects from pumping, one of which falls below the conditions called for in the recovery plan and needs further work.
Ron Basso, chief hydrogeologist for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, said during the February meeting that aquifer levels around the caution area have risen. The change, he said, is not only a result of increased rainfall, which he called slightly above average from 2008 to 2019. He and Hogg used before and after pictures to make their case. The images show dry beds turned soggy and formerly bare lakes inundated.
The improvement, the two agencies noted, has come alongside a swelling population around Tampa Bay. That growth is expected to continue. In order to maintain environmental progress, they said, managers will have to keep developing alternative ways of producing drinking water. Scientists will still monitor wetlands.
“We’re not interested in giving any of that back,” Hogg said of the progress. Southern Hillsborough County is one particular place where new residents are expected to drive greater demand.
The district lists two other caution areas, one to the south and another around Plant City. A recent assessment indicated the latter’s recovery strategy may also no longer be needed, according to the district’s website.
Tampa Bay Water is applying for a renewed groundwater permit, which would allow pumping of up to an average of 90 million gallons per day annually from wellfields in the current northern caution area. Leaders at the Water Management District have already signaled they could be on board.
“We look forward to working with Tampa Bay Water for many, many more years,” said Kelly Rice, the district’s chair, in a statement.