Water quality efforts boost Tampa Bay's sea grasses to levels not seen since 1950s

MANATEE -- Even with the amount of development occurring in the Tampa Bay region, seagrass levels have returned to the levels that existed in the 1950s when there was a lot less population and development, officials say.

"This is a unique situation in Tampa Bay," said Robert Brown, Manatee County's environmental protection division manager in the parks and natural resources department. "If you look nationally and worldwide, most of our estuaries in coastal waters are degrading, going backwards, getting worse. I can't think of any other ones where we are seeing development going on and seeing improvements at the same time. It just shows the management strategies we've implemented are working."

Today, Tampa Bay has 40,294 acres of seagrass baywide, an increase of more than 5,650 acres between 2012 and 2014, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District's 2014 seagrass survey released last week. SWFWMD's Surface Water Improvement and Management Program assesses seagrass coverage in the bay about every two years.

With the seagrass levels being restored to levels in the 1950s, the water quality in Tampa Bay has improved, because seagrass acts as a measure to determine the bay's water quality, Brown

said. They are also working to maintain Sarasota Bay's seagrass levels.

"This is a remarkable achievement, made even more so when you consider that the bay region has grown by more than 1 million people in the last 15 years," Tampa Bay Estuary Program Director Holly Greening said in a news release.

With seagrass levels around 25,000 acres in 1995, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program set out a goal to restore levels to the baywide total of 38,000 acreages that existed in the 1950s. The seagrass levels today are more than 2,000 acres above the goal set more than 20 years ago.

The 1950s were selected because it was before a lot of development took place and aerial photos documenting the conditions existed.

"The conditions in the bay are similar to what they were prior to major development and influx of millions of people in the Tampa Bay area," Brown said, noting that the struggle will be maintaining the levels as growth continues.

The restoration of the bay's seagrass levels was a joint effort among various sectors of the Tampa Bay community, including local governments, industries, community groups and citizens, totaling in more than 500 projects and actions that have been implemented to result in bay water clarity levels similar to the 1950s.

Among those efforts in Manatee County include the county's fertilizer ordinance, agriculture drip irrigation and multiple restoration projects along the coast, including Robinson Preserve. The management program in Tampa Bay has been a model for other agencies.

"We will continue on that management strategy to develop programs to reduce nitrogen loads in the future," Brown said.

Nutrients are the main culprit in seagrass loss. To help maintain the levels, the public should be mindful of things such as pet waste, grass clippings and fertilizer from entering the bay, Brown said.

Without the collaboration, the goal couldn't have been achieved.

"It couldn't happen without all the partners," Brown said. "Without that collaboration with all the stakeholders, it wouldn't be possible to do that. It is a monumental achievement when you really think about it."

Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at caronson@bradenton.com. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.