Tampa Bay has enjoyed a tremendous resurgence in water quality over the last 30 years, and yet our fragile ecosystem needs our attention more than ever.
There are reports indicating that algae mats, or macroalgae accumulations, have appeared to be more prevalent than usual around many parts of Tampa Bay. The estuary faced overlapping crises last year: first, the massive industrial wastewater release from the old Piney Point fertilizer plant site and later a Red Tide algal bloom that killed many tons of fish.
Those troubles drew a spotlight to the bay, revealing a handful of research gaps that have frustrated efforts to track the complete impact of the polluted discharge from Piney Point. Filter feeding oysters are retaining pollutants that move up the food chain, also raising health concerns for people, fish and other wildlife.
As our communities have greatly reduced wastewater and industrial discharges, limited widespread coastal wetland losses, and treated stormwater runoff from our neighborhoods into our rivers and bays, water quality has improved substantially. Thousands of community and student volunteers support Tampa Bay Watch hands-on habitat restoration initiatives every year. Tampa Bay is a national example of how a community can join together to restore our coastal waters.
And you can see the difference each and every day. As you drive over our bridges the water is often clear blue, bay and gulf beaches are open year-round, fisheries, birds and other wildlife are returning. The economic engine of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico are driving record tourism and real estate markets — it seems that everyone wants to live or vacation here.
But it is a cautionary tale. Critical seagrass communities responded to water quality improvements and recovered to 1950 levels, the restoration target set for Tampa Bay by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. Unfortunately, the renaissance of seagrass was short lived as Tampa Bay experienced declines of more than 5,000 acres of seagrass in the last five years.
I believe that the Piney Point spill in 2021 contributed to a devastating Red Tide bloom, which was followed by massive macroalgae blooms not seen in Tampa Bay since the early 1990s. Macroalgae in Boca Ciega Bay and other locations bloomed through the winter and spring as the nutrients of 2021 continue to be recycled in the bay.
Why should we care? The tremendous gains in water quality and seagrass communities are impacted by accelerated population growth in the Tampa Bay region. One has only to look at the Indian River Lagoon to see how widespread discharges of nutrients to the Lagoon caused the recent catastrophic collapse of the ecosystem, resulting in a decimation of seagrasses, massive fish kills and unprecedented starvation of the local manatee population. This demonstrates the fragile nature of coastal ecosystems and why acting now, to prevent similar risks in Tampa Bay, is critical.
What can we do? The Piney Point discharge was irresponsible and should serve as a wake-up call. The water quality of Tampa Bay is driven by nutrients, namely nitrogen. All efforts to dial back nutrients from stormwater runoff, wastewater and industrial discharges must be implemented now. Accelerating funding to upgrade our aging infrastructure to prevent accidental releases is critical, especially in the face of climate change. Addressing the complicated issues of Upper Tampa Bay water quality will benefit the entire Tampa Bay ecosystem and economy. Participating in community driven hands-on habitat and water quality coastal projects organized by Tampa Bay Watch and other organizations helps to move the needle forward.
We must act quickly and decisively now to prevent any further deterioration of the bay’s water quality and to put in place measures to ensure the Tampa Bay region is prepared to maintain and improve water quality well into the future. The hard lessons learned at the expense of the quality of our estuary must not be repeated again. Just as it was 30 years ago, this is our problem, and all of us need to be an active part of the solution.
Peter A. Clark is president and founder of Tampa Bay Watch, Inc,, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection and restoration of the Tampa Bay estuary. The organization will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year.