Three feet of muck lines portions of Tampa Bay floor
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06/18/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Right now there may not be any crude lapping onto the shores of Tampa Bay, but water quality here has certainly seen better days, especially in the bay’s upper parts. A thick layer of muck covers much of the bottom of upper Tampa Bay, but scientists say there are a couple of easy fixes.

It’s shaping up to be a scorcher as Ed Sherwood, a scientist with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, drops what looks like a solid metal trap into the waters of Old Tampa Bay. It’s attached to a long rope. He pulls it up after a few seconds, and empties its contents into a plastic tub.

Nanette O’Hara is the estuary program’s outreach coordinator. She says tons of this muck, which is grayish-brown in color and has the consistency of pudding, covers the bottom of the upper portion of Tampa Bay.

The muck doesn’t exactly occur naturally; Sherwood says a team of USF researchers were able to trace its origins.

The nutrients that feed all the algae in the muck, Sherwood says, come largely from the fertilizer that washes from local lawns into the bay, especially when there’s a storm.

O’Hara says what makes the problem worse is the fact that the Courtney Campbell Causeway, which is visible from the boat, blocks the natural flow of water.

She says there have been some culverts blasted into the Hillsborough side of the bridge. But since most of the muck can’t go anywhere, it accumulates on the bay floor. Sherwood says this deprives the water of oxygen, which drives key fish species away from these waters. He says while upper Tampa Bay might not be a dead zone now, if things stay the way they are, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes one.

Sherwood says that one key way to stop the algae blooms is for municipalities to stop letting untold amounts of lawn fertilizer wash into the bay.

Pinellas County has passed a fertilizer ban, which Oldsmar and Safety Harbor – two of the towns that flank Old Tampa Bay – have also adopted. Hillsborough County is currently weighing a ban, though some commissioners appear skeptical of such a measure. O’Hara says she thinks the Pinellas ordinance will be effective.

While many Florida residents appear unable to fathom a yard without a lush, green lawn -- however non-native and chemical-dependent they may be -- O’Hara says there are smarter ways to get an attractive yard.

O’Hara says that what’s at stake here are the things that help define life in the Tampa Bay area.

Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission will vote on a proposed fertilizer ordinance on July 15th.

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