Bay Area Scientific Information Symposium

10/22/09 Matthew Cimitile
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The 5th Bay Area Scientific Information Symposium (BASIS) took place this week to update and revise the science from the first meeting nearly 3 decades ago, and find ways to balance ecosystem and human needs in Tampa Bay.

Shortly before the first BASIS meeting in 1982, the Tampa Bay estuary was deathly sick. Decades of urbanization resulted in polluted water, degraded habitat and diminished marine populations. Holly Greening, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, remembers when many were writing off the bay’s future.

“Some of the newspapers at that time actually called the bay dead. It was very heavily polluted by nitrogen pollution. There were sheets of microalgae on the shoreline from excess nitrogen coming into the bay. Water quality and water clarity was very poor. We had lost 50 percent of our seagrasses since the 1950s.”

In Tampa Bay, canals were dug through wetlands for drainage and flood control. Seawalls were erected. Mangroves were cleared for access to waterfront views and ditched and filled to control mosquito populations. By the late 1970s, coastal ecosystems in Tampa Bay were unraveling as mangroves, seagrasses and wetlands were vanishing.

Efforts to restore the bay began around the time of Basis 1. Brandt Henningsen is a chief environmental scientist with the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

“It was just about that break time when Tampa Bay started improving when some of the local scientists and managers realized no one had done this before for Tampa Bay and they wanted to create this forum to not only heighten the awareness and understanding of Tampa Bay but a dialogue that would continue to help move the environmental agenda along better for the Tampa Bay area.”

Organized to address the state of the Bay and conditions crippling its environment, the conference brought together resource managers and scientists from disciplines like geology, hydrology and fisheries to create a concerted effort to improve the area’s ecosystem.

Twenty-seven years later, regulation of pollution and sewage discharge, resource management of fisheries, and taxpayers’ willingness to support land acquisition programs have rejuvenated the bay, creating a healthier and economically vibrant ecosystem. Suzanne Cooper is a principal planner with the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.

“We dramatically improved water quality because of decreased sewage discharges and much better control of point source pollutants, the phosphate industry, the ports. Tremendous advances in water quality, which has led to improvements in seagrasses.”

This in turn has led to improvements for the fishing industry, tourism and recreation.

Today, the bay has rebounded dramatically from its environmental low point almost three decades ago. According to the Tampa Estuary Program, water clarity has improved to 1950s conditions and more than 6,000 acres of seagrasses have been restored since 1982, bringing back species like bay scallops and sea trout.

Environmental scientist Henningsen considers this success a model for other threatened waters. “In many ways the Tampa Bay estuary is setting the mark for other urbanized estuaries around the world. We are one of the few estuaries if not perhaps the only estuary in the world where we are actually seeing improvements over time instead of further decreases in water quality and habitat values.”

Other challenges still persist however, said Ed Sherwood, a program scientist at the Tampa Bay Estuary Program who helped organize Basis 5.

“In Florida there is always going to be the challenge of dealing with increased population growth and expansion and urbanization of our watersheds in the face of other stressors like climate change and sea level rise impacts.”

More than 3 million people reside in the bay area, and that number is expected to double by 2050. Sea levels may rise by one to three feet by century’s end, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And Congress is currently debating re-opening offshore drilling.

But the sentiment of conference attendees is that addressing such challenges will take the same coordination and cooperation between scientists and resource managers, for which Basis was created. The Planning Council’s Cooper said it will also take a new generation to continue the work of improving and preserving the bay ecosystem.

“What we see is not only a lot of the “old guard” that have been here since the beginning or before but we see a terrific bunch of young people who are coming in and being able to spend time with us to understand the institutional knowledge and appreciate what happened and what they need to do to carry on.”

Basis 5 took place from Tuesday to Friday this week and is organized roughly every five years.

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