Gulf of Mexico
Eric Higgs / Courtesy Mass fish kills show the ugly side of the Bay. Carcasses pile up on the shores of Big Bayou Bay, St. Petersburg.

FL - Shining example: Tampa Bay's water quality is declining after a half-century of gains

After decades of pollution suffocated Tampa Bay and killed half its seagrass and much of its marine life, unprecedented political cooperation and hundreds of science-guided projects brought the estuary back to life. Tampa Bay became a symbol for the success of the Clean Water Act of 1972, but seagrasses and fish have begun to die again.

The burnt-rotten stench of sulfur hung over Tampa Bay. Socialites living on Bayshore Boulevard, one of the most coveted water-front addresses in the city, watched their silver dishes, silverware and heirlooms tarnish. They knew the culprit was coming from the Bay, but had no idea exactly what it was.

Through much of the 20th century, well into the 1970s, phosphate plants and coal-burning power plants pumped sulfur dioxide into the skies over Tampa Bay without opposition. Industries, farms and local governments dumped waste into the bay and its connecting waterways — even raw sewage.

“It’s some of the nicest real estate in Tampa, and it was almost uninhabitable,” said Evan Bennett, a Florida Atlantic University history professor working on an environmental history of Tampa Bay. “Women along Bayshore in the 1950s and 1960s were complaining regularly that not only did it tarnish the silver — but it would erode silver.”

Activism from those kinds of wealthy homeowners, Bennett said, made politicians take notice of a dying Bay. The pollution ruining the silver was ruining sea life too. Nearly half of the Bay’s seagrasses were wiped out by 1982. The decades that followed saw some of the worst fish kills in Florida history. Manatees reached the brink of extinction.

Political will made Tampa Bay one of the nation’s shining examples of how a region could come together — with local, state and federal government working with citizens, NGOs and industry to clean up water pollution. Unprecedented cooperation over decades culminated in Tampa Bay becoming a national model for restoration and the success of the Clean Water Act.

WATERSHED: Special project on the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act

But today, Tampa Bay is again plagued by fecal and industrial pollution and other dangers. Seagrass levels in the Bay peaked in 2016 at more than 42,000 acres. Now that number has dipped to 35,000 acres. Manatees, which had returned to the Bay alongside seagrass, were taken off the endangered species list in 2017. Now they are dying in record numbers. Algae blooms over the last five years have led to some of the worst fish kills in Tampa Bay since the 1970s.

On the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act of 1972, Tampa Bay is still a model for what political will, cooperation and regulation can achieve. It is also an example of the limitations of the half-century-old law amid weak state pollution control; intense population growth; and climate change.

Like other waterways across Florida, Tampa Bay is losing its shine.

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