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How to clean up Tampa Bay and keep it that way

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The decades-long effort to improve Tampa Bay’s water quality could be reversed if we quit paying attention.

From Tampa Bay Watch president and founder Peter A. Clark:

Tampa Bay has enjoyed a tremendous resurgence in water quality over the last 30 years, and yet our fragile ecosystem needs our attention more than ever.

There are reports indicating that algae mats, or macroalgae accumulations, have appeared to be more prevalent than usual around many parts of Tampa Bay. The estuary faced overlapping crises last year: first, the massive industrial wastewater release from the old Piney Point fertilizer plant site and later a Red Tide algal bloom that killed many tons of fish.

Those troubles drew a spotlight to the bay, revealing a handful of research gaps that have frustrated efforts to track the complete impact of the polluted discharge from Piney Point. Filter feeding oysters are retaining pollutants that move up the food chain, also raising health concerns for people, fish and other wildlife.

As our communities have greatly reduced wastewater and industrial discharges, limited widespread coastal wetland losses, and treated stormwater runoff from our neighborhoods into our rivers and bays, water quality has improved substantially. Thousands of community and student volunteers support Tampa Bay Watch hands-on habitat restoration initiatives every year. Tampa Bay is a national example of how a community can join together to restore our coastal waters.

And you can see the difference each and every day. As you drive over our bridges the water is often clear blue, bay and gulf beaches are open year-round, fisheries, birds and other wildlife are returning. The economic engine of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico are driving record tourism and real estate markets — it seems that everyone wants to live or vacation here.

But it is a cautionary tale. Critical seagrass communities responded to water quality improvements and recovered to 1950 levels, the restoration target set for Tampa Bay by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. Unfortunately, the renaissance of seagrass was short lived as Tampa Bay experienced declines of more than 5,000 acres of seagrass in the last five years.