While water quality continues to improve alongside increasing public engagement towards environmental issues, researchers remain concerned about conditions in Old Tampa Bay.
Those are the key findings from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program’s (TBEP) State of the Bay report. The recently released study, which tracks progress through key indicators of the bay’s health, is the result of three years of scientific research and community outreach.
Joe Whalen, science communication designer and creator for TBEP, said the project’s studies take time to complete, and issuing the report every three years helps quantify results and monitor trends. While much of the findings are encouraging, he said his first significant takeaway is that the upper portions of the bay continue to show signs of stress.
“In the coming years, we’re going to want to continue focusing efforts to reduce nutrients in that area,” said Whalen. “Improve tidal circulation and continue to conserve the coastal habitats in that area of the bay.”
The St. Petersburg-based organization dedicated to restoring and protecting Tampa Bay released its State of the Bay report to board members last week and is now promoting its findings and avenues for involvement to the public. Studies focus on the four major bay segments and show that water quality has steadily improved and met established standards since about 2005 – except for Old Tampa Bay.
Whalen said persistent water quality issues in the upper portion of the bay have resulted in the loss of vital seagrass, which “is a clear indicator that an increase in efforts needs to be pointed in that direction.”
As the region continues to experience exponential growth, Whalen said it is imperative to increase habitat restoration efforts before those vital areas become lost to development. He added that requires immediate action to capitalize on what opportunities remain.
“And a lot of that is going to require a focus on native uplands,” said Whalen. “Where we’re seeing a lot of that loss.”
Researchers, said Whalen, believe inefficient tidal circulation – partially due to bridges in the area – contributes to water quality issues in the upper bay. He said alteration projects are underway to improve the natural flow around the Courtney Campbell Causeway so currents can more efficiently flush accumulated nutrients out of the bay and into the Gulf of Mexico.
“As it would have if we didn’t have as many blocks in the circulation,” he added.
The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is also building a new eight-lane bridge over Old Tampa Bay to replace the Howard Frankland. Whalen said any modifications to circulation negatively impact a body of water’s ability to heal itself, and that project is one reason scientists are bolstering research efforts in the area. He noted the importance of providing data to government officials when discussing potential alteration plans to improve water flow.
In addition to other segments of Tampa Bay again meeting water quality standards, Whalen said the most encouraging aspect of the report is a surge in community involvement.
TBEP, said Whalen, has recently formed several new partnerships, and many other collaborative opportunities are in the works. Residents are also increasingly vocal in their advocacy for restoration projects, he added, and the organization is now seeing a return on its outreach efforts.
A new feature for the 2022 State of the Bay report is TBEP’s “Reach Index,” which highlights content the program’s followers are most likely to interact with and guides future communications.
“We’re really starting to take a closer look at how we’re engaging with people and how much engagement we’re getting,” said Whalen. “It’s been good to see an increase in that the past three years.”
Whalen said TBEP noticed a drastic increase in engagement metrics following the Piney Point disaster in April 2021. Officials released 215 million gallons of contaminated water from the former phosphate plant near lower Tampa Bay to prevent it from flooding surrounding neighborhoods. The region subsequently experienced the worst red tide outbreak in 50 years.
News coverage of those events piqued public interest, said Whalen, and also increased the need to highlight restoration and conservation success stories. “It’s not all doom and gloom,” he added.
Showcasing new ways for residents to play an active role in restoring Tampa Bay, said Whalen, was a driving force as he designed the report. He said there are new ways for the public to engage that they might not realize, including TBEP’s Bay Mini-Grant program.
Funded by revenue from its Tarpon Tag specialty license plates, the grants are competitive awards of up to $5,000 for community projects that address restoration and education priorities in Tampa Bay.
“You know, see all this new data that we’re presenting and consider what way they can contribute,” said Whalen. “There’s a lot of different ways – and I think my main hope is that this inspires people to find out what way it makes the most sense for them.”
View the full State of the Bay report here.