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Tampa Bay's historic cleanup could serve as blueprint for Lake Okeechobee crisis

Blue-green algae coats Hillsborough Bay near Gibsonton in 1970. It’s similar to the algae blooms plaguing the Treasure Coast region today. It took time and money, but Tampa Bay was rescued.
Published Jul. 20, 2016

The putrid, rotten-egg smell that has plagued Lake Okeechobee's neighbors is the same odor Rick Garrity remembers gagging on when he moved to Tampa in 1977.

"If you stood at the intersection of Bayshore and Bay to Bay in the middle of summer you could not stand the stench," said Garrity, then the city's urban environmental coordinator. "It was horrific."

The cause was largely the same — blue-green algae blooms.

On Florida's Treasure Coast, where the blooms have spilled out of the lake into waterways, local and state officials are scrambling to stop the advance of the guacamole-green goop and its sulfuric smell before it affects any more people and wildlife. Photos from space of the algae have sparked a national outcry, and Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency.

Around Tampa Bay, the crisis is bringing back memories of the region's own struggles with pollution and the catastrophe it nearly caused during the 1970s.

Newspaper headlines decried the damage. Tampa Bay was declared dead and many worried it would never recover.

But it did.

Seagrass coverage here, a key measure of water quality and clarity, last year surpassed 40,000 acres — levels not seen since the 1950s and nearly double the low point. Fish and other wildlife populations have rebounded, as anglers testify, and the stench of algae blooms is rare.

Now, some hope Tampa Bay's stunning reversal can serve as a blueprint for reeling Treasure Coast communities. Leaders from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program have met with officials from there who are eager for solutions.

"It hasn't been that long ago that we had a similar fate," said Tom Ash, the assistant director of Water Management Division with the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission. "The same driving forces were here in Tampa Bay."

• • •

An overnight success story, this was not.

The rescue of Tampa Bay was a decades-long effort and it began in earnest in 1972.

That year, the Sun Coast Girl Scouts, led by former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt, beat back a Pinellas County plan to build a 19-inch outfall pipe that would have dumped lightly treated sewage directly into the water.

The environmental victory, the first of many for Platt during a long career in public service, raised the alarm. For the first time, she said, the public became aware of what happened after they flushed the toilet: Their sewage was sent into Tampa Bay.

"That was the beginning," Platt said. "People didn't realize it was just the way things were. They didn't think about it."

Around the same time, the Legislature passed the Wilson-Grizzle Bill of 1972 mandating advanced wastewater treatment at Tampa Bay area plants that dumped into rivers and bays. Meantime, President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act of 1972, giving local government federal money to overhaul dated wastewater infrastructure.

That led to the Howard F. Curren Advanced Waste Water Treatment Plant at Tampa's Hooker's Point, a $90 million project that turned wastewater into drinkable water before it discharged into the bay. When it opened in 1979, officials celebrated by sipping its outflow from champagne flutes.

Across the bay, St. Petersburg diverted its treated wastewater to golf courses, a first-in-the nation project.

Residents had complained about the stench from the bay for years by that point. Neighbors traded rumors that it tarnished their silverware. And in 1974, former Environmental Protection Commission director Roger Stewart brought Tampa Bay's plight to a national audience during a bombshell appearance on CBS's 60 Minutes. Stewart was briefly removed from his job by angry county commissioners.

Sewage, though, didn't cause the smell — at least not directly. Rather, the pollutants in the discharge, namely nitrogen, spurred massive algae growth that sucked the oxygen out of the water and blocked sunshine from reaching the bottom, killing fish and plants. When the algae died, it rose to the surface, unleashing the rancid odors.

Similarly, runoff from sugar farms coupled with wastewater discharges caused phosphate to pour into Lake Okeechobee and create the algae blooms.

The initial steps taken by St. Petersburg and Tampa in the 1970s stopped the bleeding.

"Between those two major actions there, nitrogen pollution to the bay was about cut in half from 1980 to 1985," said Holly Greening, executive director of the Tampa Bay estuary program.

Improvements to the ecosystem, though, weren't noticeable until several years later. Even after the problem was identified, and Congress and Tallahassee acted, it took more than 15 years to see progress.

Which is why state and local officials dealing with the effects of algae in Lake Okeechobee will need to be patient to see the fruits of whatever action they take, Greening said.

Added Platt, "We had faith in the expertise of the professionals that were involved."

• • •

Treating wastewater "was the low-hanging fruit," said Ash, with the Environmental Protection Commission.

But it was the collaboration afterward that made Tampa Bay an international success story.

Stewart's television appearance was one of the few contentious moments in the bay's saga. Otherwise, officials recall that cordial, sturdy partnerships helped steer the region through difficult discussions and challenges.

"There was a recognition that everyone was about equally responsible for the amount of nitrogen coming into the bay," Greening said.

The sentiment crossed political aisles, regional rivalries and typical federal-state turf wars.

Never was that more apparent than June 1989 when Platt, then a county commissioner, testified in front of a U.S. House of Representatives committee and asked for Tampa Bay's inclusion in the National Estuary Program. There, she sat between Reps. C.W. Bill Young, a Republican from Indian Shores, and Sam Gibbons, a Tampa Democrat, who together pushed Platt's request through Congress and won nearly $5 million in funding.

"That was what was different then," Platt said. "On our bay issues, the representatives of both parties would support what would cure the bay."

Later, state and federal environmental officials would co-chair the Tampa Bay Estuary Program board, another symbol of unity. In 1996, the program set voluntary target maximums for nitrogen discharges into the bay that even won support from agriculture and industry, including Tampa Electric Co. and Mosaic. The targets were later adopted by the state and federal regulators.

Today, less than 5,000 tons of nitrogen reach the bay each year, half of what was discharged in the 1980s.

"Everyone agreed, let's make this better for quality of life for our area," Greening said. "Having our local governments invite the industries and private sector to help out was a very important piece."

It's disappointing, then, for those involved with Tampa Bay's cleanup to watch the rancor now between Democrats and Republicans and Tallahassee and Washington as they squabble over how to save Lake Okeechobee.

Scott has blamed President Barack Obama's administration for a lack of funding while others say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mismanaged the body of water. Democrats and some conservationists have criticized Scott for refusing to crack down on sugar farms, whose owners contribute to the campaigns of Scott and other Republicans and whose operations are a major source of phosphate runoff.

Scott has proposed a matching grant program with local governments to replace old, leaky septic tanks, but it's not clear that will be enough.

"You didn't have the finger pointing you have now, and I'm really sad to see it," said Garrity, who retired last year as head of Hillsborough's Environmental Protection Commission. "It's not going to be an easy solution, but you can't just say one thing is going to solve it.

"It shouldn't be a political issue."

Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com.

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