The continuing revival of Tampa Bay holds a message for state lawmakers, who have been indifferent when not antagonistic to environmental concerns in recent years.
The remarkable comeback of the state’s largest estuary shows what can be accomplished when leaders at all levels recognize the value of the state’s natural gifts and work together to protect them.
There was a time when the Legislature could be counted on to lead such efforts. But recent sessions have demonstrated little of that foresight and, if anything, have been inclined to undermine local cleanup efforts — witness efforts to put a stop to the rainy season fertilizer bans that have proved effective or kill local wetlands rules.
Before sabotaging such efforts, lawmakers should consider the latest water quality report from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, which monitors the bay’s welfare.
Water quality of segments of the bay is improving and meeting cleanup targets. In addition, many areas of the bay now have record water clarity.
Moreover, the bay has recovered 34,642 acres of seagrasses, only 3,358 acres shy of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program’s goal, one the bay may well exceed.
The most recent seagrass survey found the bay gained 1,745 acres from 2010-2012.
Such progress would have been impossible to imagine a few decades ago.
In 1986 a study found Tampa Bay lost 81 percent of its seagrasses and 44 percent of its mangrove forests. Much of the bay was badly polluted. Fishing was pitiful.
But activists fought to save the bay, and local, state and federal leaders responded.
Congress’ Clean Water Act played a key role. So did the state’s law that required advanced wastewater treatment.
The state’s Surface Water Improvement Management Act, which aimed to clean up major water bodies throughout Florida, made Tampa Bay a priority.
The program, administered by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, invested millions in building stormwater systems, restoring altered creeks and shorelines to their natural state, planting seagrasses and other projects that would either reduce pollution or help the bay cleanse itself.
The SWIM effort was launched during the administration of Gov. Bob Martinez, a conservative Republican who understood the importance of the natural resources that make Florida such a wonderful place to live, work and visit.
The private sector also played a key role in the bay’s comeback, with companies such as TECO and the Mosaic fertilizer company (then Cargill) overhauling their facilities to minimize pollution.
Of particular note is how the Tampa Bay Estuary Program worked with industries and local governments to tackle nitrogen pollution, the major threat to the bay.
The public-private collaboration has led to dozens of projects in Tampa Bay’s watershed — including effluent treatment in Bartow, streetsweeping in Plant City, a fertilizer ordinance in Pinellas, restoring a settling pond near Hillsborough Bay — that have dramatically reduced nitrogen pollution.
All this progress has taken time, and sometimes involved political battles, but nurturing Tampa Bay back to health has made the region a more appealing place to live and enhanced its economic prospects.
This useful lesson in stewardship shows, in contrast to the familiar Tallahassee rhetoric, that thoughtful environmental regulations do pay off.