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Tampa Bay water restoration lauded as model for other dirty bays

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Tampa Bay’s drastic recovery from abysmal water quality 20 years ago to today’s clean and often crystal clear waters is being heralded as not just a win, but a model for other communities struggling to clean up major water bodies.

A report in Reuters Tuesday lauds the broad support between environmental groups and big businesses to embark on decades or restoration.

When Tampa Bay’s water quality was at its lowest; when murky water and frequent fish kills were a regular happening, scientists set out to fix the problem by restoring sea grass beds that had dwindled to unhealthy levels.

As Reuters reports, experts were doubtful they’d see the fruit of their labor within their lifetimes. But now sea grass levels are at their highest levels in more than 60 years.

It’s all part of an effort spearheaded by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. That group was created in 1990 in order to coordinate restoration efforts. It remains intact today. Some $500 million has been invested into efforts ranging from reduced nitrogen pollution to better sewage treatment plants and cleaner energy.

The efforts were spread among local governments, nonprofits and even utility companies.

Over the years, groups like Tampa Bay Watch have replanted sea grass in areas where it had died while local governments more recently have implemented fertilizer ordinances to reduce the amount of nutrient runoff into the Bay.

These combined efforts led to the success of clean-water restoration, but the same efforts in other places aren’t being felt.

“Until you really have everybody participating and pulling in the same direction, it’s hard to achieve a lot of the accomplishments like they have in Tampa Bay,” Jeff Benoit, president and chief executive of Restore America’s Estuaries, told Reuters.

Lack of cooperation is becoming a problem in Chesapeake Bay, whose shore spans six states. There’s a looming 2017 pollution reduction target set that may not be met because politics gets in the way.

Pollution caps set to foster clean water and aid restoration efforts are being challenged in court. The farm lobby brought up those challenges.

Despite pushback and a lack of overall success so far, there is still optimism among environmentalists along the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

“It shows that you can actually do it,” said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program, according to Reuters in regards to the success in Tampa Bay. “Kudos to them for really seeing it through and providing a great shining example.”

Sea grass beds are an indicator of clear water because sunlight is needed for the grass to grow underwater. Murky water lends to those beds dying off.

But that isn’t the only win for clean water. Sea grass beds also serve as important marine life nurseries where many organisms begin life. It’s also where many commercially sold fish are born.

That gives at least some non-environmental-related incentive to local governments and businesses to support clean-water initiatives.

Other areas that could benefit from programs like those in Tampa Bay include San Francisco Bay and the Great Lakes.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email

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