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Impacts of sewer, stormwater dischargers on Tampa Bay will take time to assess

The effect on the Bay's seagrasses and water quality water quality will require study by area scientists

The long-term effects of recent significant wastewater and stormwater overflows into the bay may not be known for months, or even longer. The Tampa Bay Estuary Program recognizes the potential impacts of these discharges, and greatly appreciates the concerns expressed by people all over the region who understand how important Tampa Bay is to our quality of life.

"People care deeply about the health of the bay, and know its value as a centerpiece of our economy and environment," TBEP Director Holly Greening said. "The bay has made remarkable progress over the last 30 years because governments, industries, scientists and citizens have come together for the good of the bay. We remain confident that the Tampa Bay community can keep bay restoration moving forward through a collaborative approach."

Tampa Bay has experienced major sewer overflows in the past when torrential downpours have exceeded the capacity of municipal and industrial sewer and stormwater systems. Similar emergency discharges occurred during the El Nino winter of 1998-1999, and the summer of 2004 when several tropical storms affected the area. Widespread stormwater flooding and sewer overflows occurred last August from heavy rains, followed by a wet winter and another very rainy summer this year.

Tropical Storm Hermine's arrival on Sept. 1 compounded and magnified the problems, dumping as much as 22 inches of rain on parts of Pinellas County in a 72-hour period.

Last year, TBEP was proud to join the region last year in celebrating the record recovery of 40,295 acres of seagrass in Tampa Bay, the most seagrass observed in 60 years. Tampa Bay's overall good health and abundance of seagrass better positions it to absorb excess nutrients from wastewater and stormwater. The bay has proven to be resilient, although algae blooms and resulting seagrass losses are possible, and vigilance is needed to maintain the bay's recovery.

As we head into winter and waters cool, the risk of widespread, severe algae blooms will decrease somewhat. And cleansing tides each day continue to help the bay flush pollutants.

TBEP will know more about water quality in various bay segments early next year, when staff from the Environmental Protection Commission assess water clarity results from their 2016 monthly sampling. EPC samples 45 locations in the bay for a variety of parameters, including dissolved oxygen, turbidity and microscopic algae. TBEP analyzes and reports the data as an annual water quality "report card."

The results of seagrass surveys also won't be known until next year, when the Southwest Florida Water Management District releases its analysis of digital aerial photos taken last winter. Those aerials will not pick up impacts to seagrasses that may have occurred this summer, but they will show whether, and where, seagrasses have declined, increased or held steady since the record-setting gains of 2012-2014.

Meanwhile, TBEP partners continue to work on updating the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan for Tampa Bay. The Plan is updated once a decade and guides regional research, restoration and education priorities for the watershed.

Two actions already approved earlier this year by our Policy Board have particular relevance now in assisting the region in preventing sewer overflows and assessing the public health risks associated with them:

WQ-5 Reduce the Occurrence of Sanitary Sewer Overflows to the Bay

  • Encourages and supports the replacement or repair of sanitary sewer infrastructure owned by utilities and private property owners.
  • Supports efforts to reduce groundwater and stormwater inflow and infiltration to sanitary sewer systems.
  • Supports local government capacity to gain grant funding for needed Capital Improvement Projects.
  • Promotes improved communication, coordination and cooperation among regional utilities, and between utilities and the public.
  • Supports public education and outreach about best practices for proper use and maintenance of sanitary sewer infrastructure attached to residences and businesses.

PH-2 Continue Source and Risk Assessments of Human and Environmental Health Indicators Suitable for Tampa Bay Beaches and Other Recreational Waters

  • Support and monitor research into microbial indicators of waterborne pathogens harmful to human and environmental health.
  • Support and monitor advancements in analytical techniques to directly detect, identify and track waterborne microbial pathogens.
  • Support adoption of best available detection, identification and source tracking methodologies.
  • Increase public education and awareness about waterborne fecal pathogens, beach advisories, and best practices to reduce exposure.
  • These and other actions in our Plan update can be found at

    Your comments and feedback are welcome in advance of final adoption of the entire Plan early next year.

    A healthy Tampa Bay generates $22 billion worth of economic activity and is linked to one in every five jobs in the watershed. With your help, the bay can weather this setback and continue the remarkable recovery that so many of us have experienced and enjoyed first-hand, as anglers, paddlers, wildlife-watchers, sailors or simply fans of the bay's spectacular sunsets.