How Did Tampa Restore the Health of Its Bay?

The Tampa Bay Estuary Oral History Project

Bayshore Boulevard today (Photo courtesy Paul Einselen)
Bayshore Boulevard today (Photo courtesy Paul Einselen)

On any given day, scores of people can be seen boating or fishing in Tampa Bay, and hundreds more jogging or cycling along the Bay’s famed Bayshore Boulevard sidewalk. Today, we take the general health and pleasantness of the waters of Tampa Bay for granted — but that wasn’t always the case.

As Tampa developed, its bay was often used as a consumable natural resource – early on, fossilized oyster shell was dredged for road construction and, as the infrastructure needs of the City grew, it became a convenient dumping ground for wastewater discharge. This eventually took its toll: by the 1950s, once-abundant seagrass meadows in the bay had diminished greatly. As the volume grew, the wastewater discharge could no longer be assimilated – the output was too great for adequate dilution of the pollution. The bay had become putrid. The smell of decomposing seaweed as one walked down Bayshore Boulevard made it difficult to breathe.

From USF Libraries' Skip Gandy Commerical and Aerial Photography Collection
From USF Libraries’ Skip Gandy Commercial and Aerial Photography Collection

Awareness of the problem increased along with the heightened environmental consciousness of the 1960s and was bolstered by legislation passed in an effort to protect natural resources. As the community became increasingly aware of water pollution, a series of Clean Water Act measures in the 1970’s provided recognition on the federal level.

By then, Tampa was treating its wastewater with primary and secondary processes, but a tertiary level of treatment was necessary for discharged water to avoid eutrophying the receiving waters. This third level of treatment is what makes the water usable again. As ecologist Dr. Ann Hodgson explains, “When discharged wastewater hasn’t been sufficiently treated, the bay’s water becomes less clear – opaque, sometimes – preventing sunlight from penetrating the 1-to-9 feet needed to nourish sea grass. That’s why sea grass populations are such a good indicator of water quality.”

Dr. Ann Hodgson and Stan Kroh, Manager of Land and Stewardship Programs for TECO Energy, discussing environmental conditions of Tampa Bay
Dr. Ann Hodgson, ecologist and interviewer for these oral histories, discusses environmental conditions of Tampa Bay with Stan Kroh, Manager of Land and Stewardship Programs for TECO Energy

Early researchers and scientists raised questions about the bay, and then momentum developed around the need to address water quality. Skip Gandy and his father took thousands of aerial photos for the Bay Study Group and Tampa Bay Estuary Program, documenting the quality of the bay season after season (photos that are now housed in the USF Tampa Library’s Special Collections Department).

Beginning in the 1970s and continuing in the years that followed, citizen interest in restoring the bay provided motivation to establish the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and Agency on Bay Management, and tertiary treatment was added at the Howard F. Curren wastewater plant. Tampa Electric Company (TECO) added equipment on all four units at Big Bend Power Station that reduced nitrogen oxide emissions 91%, further improving water quality. In 2016, a significant goal was reached when 40,295 acres of seagrass were mapped, more than the objective set in 1995 of 38,000 acres, as part of the 40-year process to restore the Bay.

The complex interaction of scientists, elected officials, activists, and regulators illustrates a remarkable collaboration around a shared goal. In order to preserve this expertise and share it with the public, the USF Libraries launched The Tampa Bay Estuary: An Oral History of Community Collaboration to Restore Ecological Integrity in order to document the details of this important environmental restoration process. The project was led by Dr. Ann Hodgson, a leading Florida ecologist who conducted the interviews, and generously funded by TECO Energy.

The oral history interviews in the Tampa Bay Estuary project relate to many of the USF Libraries’ existing extensive environmental sustainability collections, many of which focus on the Tampa Bay area.

USF Libraries Special Collection Librarian Andy Huse worked closely with Dr. Hodgson on this project, and has extensive knowledge of the environmental collections that it complements. He summarizes the value of this project:

“This project was a way for Special Collections to curate the environmental collections we currently have. In conversation, the citizens and scholars Dr. Hodgson interviewed make complex theories and relationships understandable for the interested people outside the scientific community.”
-USF Special Collections Librarian Andy Huse

The USF Libraries are grateful to TECO Energy for their generous grant support of this important project.


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