It is interesting to look at trend data and case studies to understand how far we have come in improving resource protection in the Tampa Bay area in the past few decades. Just imagine if today we endured piles of decaying and smelly algae along the shores of Bayshore Boulevard; uncontrolled and overflowing sewage treatment plants; air pollution that caused soot to rain down on our homes and cars; household refuse disposed of randomly in low-lying areas; underground gasoline storage tanks slowly leaking their contents into groundwater; and waste sludge deposited along the shores of the Hillsborough River.
Does this sound improbable? Perhaps, but these conditions all existed locally not too long ago.
Fortunately, local elected officials, community environmental leaders and resource protection staff from government and businesses realized the folly of not protecting our natural resources.
For instance, local state senators Mary Grizzle and Harold Wilson and state Rep. Mary Figg made history with the first legislative requirements in Florida to treat wastewater to an advanced level. Hillsborough Bay water quality reacted in a startling positive fashion to the city of Tampa’s improved Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant built in 1978.
In the 1980s Hillsborough County wastewater treatment plants were full to the brim and overflowing. County leaders wisely instituted a controversial building moratorium until wastewater treatment plant capacity caught up with development, and most local governments instituted a policy of re-using treated wastewater for irrigation, getting a double credit for decreasing discharges and saving fresh water resources.
Because of these many achievements, Tampa Bay in three decades has gone from an eyesore to a leading example of how to restore an estuary. In fact, in the past 30 years there has been a 60 percent increase in seagrass acreage in Tampa Bay, and all portions of Tampa Bay have met water quality nutrient measurement targets for the past two years.
Local rivers and streams, however, still present challenges, with only 60 percent to 70 percent of water quality sampling stations in attainment for the nutrient nitrogen.
One of our local major industries, phosphate mining and fertilizer production, has, in the past five decades, reduced groundwater consumption by 75 percent and controlled pollution from phosphogypsum waste stacks by lining new stacks and capping older ones. And since 2006 the industry has reduced nutrient discharges to Tampa Bay from port terminals by more than 140 tons a year.
With solid waste disposal, we have gone from filling any low spot available, even wetlands, or burning garbage in incinerators under citation for air pollution, to state-of-the-art-lined landfills with gas controls and modern waste-to-energy burners producing enough electricity in local counties to supply 141,000 homes.
Also, in an attempt to protect and clean up our groundwater resources, in the past three decades we have discovered about 2,500 leaking underground gasoline storage tanks just in Hillsborough County. Fortunately, 53 percent of these sites have been cleaned up. This cleanup is accomplished with allocations of money from the State Inland Protection Trust Fund, which, in turn, is funded by each of us (a few cents per gallon) every time we fill our car tanks. But the state has been inconsistent in the past few years in funding these cleanups, and diligence is needed to complete the job.
Air quality in general has experienced vast improvements in recent years.
Taking all major air pollution sources into consideration, in the past 20 years acid gases have been reduced by about 90 percent and mercury emissions by over 75 percent. One major local TECO power plant has been retrofitted to burn cleaner natural gas rather than coal, and that alone resulted in a 99.96 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide and a 93 percent reduction in mercury.
We still have two site-specific non-attainment areas in Hillsborough for sulfur dioxide and lead and will have to watch these carefully.
Although wetland losses from the turn of the century are nearly 50 percent statewide and locally, those loses have been turned around with the advent of state and local protections instituted in the past 30 years. Today, losses are kept to a minimum, and if they are allowed must be mitigated to achieve a no-net loss of wetland function. The percentage of mitigation sites in compliance has progressed from 72 percent to over 90 percent in the past 20 years.
Finally, we are now celebrating the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough County’s Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program (ELAPP). With the support of local voters and county commissioners approving funding sources, the hard work of the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department and the work of the Program Advisory and Review Teams, over 61,000 acres of land have been purchased to protect their valuable ecological resources.
Although there are successes to celebrate, we must remain alert on how to prioritize efforts for the future. Whether it is fully achieving water and air-quality standards, working to implement more sustainable practices to reduce pollution and preserve energy resources,or being prepared for future climate scenarios, we will have lots to think about, plan for and act on in future years.
Rick Garrity, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County.