In 1990, Tampa Bay was designated an Estuary of National Significance by Congress, joining a small group of the nation's most beloved — and troubled — waterways. Like its sister estuaries of New York Harbor, Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay, Tampa Bay had been pummeled by decades of dredging, development and disregard. The bay was so polluted that it was the subject of a 60 Minutes expose.
At the time it entered the National Estuary Program, Tampa Bay already had a dedicated corps of scientists, planners, elected officials, industry leaders and citizen-advocates who had been working cooperatively, across political and geographical boundaries, to halt the bay's decline. The bay's nomination to the National Estuary Program was itself a bipartisan venture of Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores and Democratic U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons of Tampa.
Those early efforts already were beginning to reap dividends. Thanks to substantial federal investments in wastewater system upgrades on both sides of the bay, and a flurry of new state and federal legislation that limited dredging and industrial discharges, required treatment of stormwater runoff for the first time, and imposed strict treatment standards on sewage piped to the bay, a remarkable transformation was beginning.
Now, 22 years later, the redemption of Tampa Bay is an international success story. While many other waterways in the United States continue to decline, Tampa Bay has rebounded. Water quality overall is as good now as it was in the 1950s — when Hillsborough and Pinellas counties had only 400,000 people compared with today's 2.2 million — and the bay now has more life-sustaining sea grasses than at any time since then.
The most recent sea grass surveys — released last week by the Southwest Florida Water Management District — show that we are 91 percent of the way to our goal of recovering 38,000 acres of sea grasses in Tampa Bay. These underwater grasses are our most important indicator of the bay's health because they support so many marine species and require clean water to flourish.
The Tampa Bay Estuary Program did not create the foundation for this success, but has successfully built upon it by leveraging resources and finding common ground among disparate and at times conflicting interests. As a partnership of the major counties and cities surrounding the bay, as well as federal and state environmental regulators, we have provided a regional structure to the restoration effort and helped to focus increasingly limited funds on the bay's most pressing problems.
During our tenure, Tampa Bay's resurgence has grown ever more impressive:
• Since 1990, nearly 9,400 acres of sea grass have been restored. We are now just 3,358 acres shy of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program's goal of 38,000 acres of sea grass baywide.
• All major bay segments met water quality goals in 2012, for the fourteenth time since baywide assessments began in 1974.
• After decades of loss, we saw a net increase of 500-plus acres of emergent tidal wetlands from 1995-2012.
• Islands in the bay system annually host as many as 40,000 pairs of nesting shore and wading birds, including one-third of all the roseate spoonbills nesting in Florida.
The Tampa Bay Estuary Program is proud of its role in fostering broad-based partnerships to facilitate this ongoing recovery. From community leaders who understand that a healthy bay is the cornerstone of our tourist-dependent economy; to the businesses who profit from our natural resources and the maritime commerce of our busy ports; to the fishermen, boaters, birders and kayakers who know that clean water is essential to our quality of life, the Estuary Program has welcomed the involvement of all in restoring Tampa Bay.
Nitrogen continues to be the bay's No. 1 pollutant. It comes from a variety of sources, including wastewater, industrial discharges, air emissions and urban and agricultural runoff. Local governments and key industries bordering the bay, united through our Nitrogen Management Consortium, have invested time and money to remove or preclude more than 600 tons of nitrogen since 1996 from entering the bay.
This collaborative spirit must be sustained as we look toward the bay's future. The constant challenges of population growth and habitat loss will remain, compounded by emerging threats like climate change and sea level rise. Innovative partnerships that nurture cooperation among different interest groups have tremendous potential to generate cost-effective, lasting solutions. We all are doing more with less; pooling our resources, our energies and our ideas just makes sense.
From multinational corporations to suburban families, we all are part of the problem and we all can be part of keeping Tampa Bay on the road to recovery.
Holly Greening is executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.