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Regional Report Card Highlights Impacts to Tampa Bay

By Victoria Parsons

Photo courtesy Pinellas County Tourist Development Council.

Tampa Bay's award-winning beaches earned an A on the region's report card.

Tampa Bay — the region — made national news when the American Society of Civil Engineers gave it a C for infrastructure, one of the best grades given so far in an ongoing report card.

So what does that mean for Tampa Bay, the body of water?

About the same, concludes Elie Araj, president of Applied Sciences Consulting and chairman of the report card committee.

The region’s top grade — an A for coastal areas — doesn’t count, however, because it applies strictly to Pinellas County beaches where federal dollars help minimize the impact of ongoing erosion. On the other hand, you can disregard a D- in education because it doesn’t have a direct impact on the estuary, he explains.

Ports, including both the Port of Tampa and Port Manatee near the mouth of the bay, earned the region a B+ for investing in infrastructure, particularly preparing for the opening of the expanded Panama Canal (see Bay Soundings, Fall 2009). “I don’t know how many people realize how important the ports are to our local economy,” Araj said. “The more I learned about what the ports are doing, the more impressed I was.”

At the Port of Tampa, a new Gateway Rail Terminal is the state’s first on-dock train with intermodal container capabilities. For trucks, the nearly complete Interstate 4 – Selmon Expressway Connector creates a bypass over busy surface roads in historic Ybor City.

Currently port activities generate almost $8 billion in economic impact and support nearly 100,000 jobs, with additional opportunities for growth when the Panama Canal opens in 2014. “The ports are well-funded and they’re making good investments,” he notes. “The economic downturn didn’t hurt them much.”

Bridges over Tampa Bay also were rated above average with a B-. Nearly 75% of the bridges are in excellent or good condition structurally but far fewer provide adequate service for current levels of traffic. Additionally, funding has been cut and may not be sufficient to maintain current bridges and build new ones in response to increased populations.

The region got a C+ for water, including potable, reclaimed and wastewater, but the report warns that the water system is susceptible to natural disasters. Funding only “marginally” covers maintenance costs and does not address planned capital improvements.

Photo by Victoria Parsons

Coastal restorations like those at Cockroach Bay weren't included in the regional report card but certainly add to quality of life.

Aging infrastructure also is an issue but Hillsborough and Pinellas counties as well as the city of St. Petersburg have aggressive maintenance campaigns to prevent leaks in water and wastewater systems. “We’re still doing okay in terms of meeting federal and state standards for water quality and wastewater discharge but we’re going to need more money to meet needs as the region continues to grow,” Araj said.

The big issues remaining for the Tampa Bay estuary are stormwater along with roads and transit – no surprise to most people who live here. Roads and transit impact the bay because deposition from auto emissions contributes a significant portion of the contamination in Tampa Bay. Still, stormwater remains the biggest issue impacting the Tampa Bay estuary and it earned the region’s lowest grade — a D–, so we nearly flunk. Even worse, it’s the primary source of contaminants in Tampa Bay, contributing more than 60% of the problem nitrogen to the estuary.

“Not only do we not have funds for capital improvements, funding for day-to-day maintenance has been steadily cut,” Araj said. “It’s hard for stormwater to compete with parks, libraries and police when local budgets are being cut. Most people don’t even realize stormwater systems exist until they stop working and their homes flood.”

And maintaining even simple stormwater structures is expensive. “For instance, Hillsborough County has a thousand square miles of land — that’s a lot of ditches to mow, pipes to keep clean and repair — even before you start on lakes which have their own problems. Residents pay a $12 per home fee to cover those costs, but it’s the bare minimum to do much-needed maintenance.”

In Pasco, where much of the development took place after state rules required more effective stormwater treatment, residents pay $47 a year; Pinellas County doesn’t have a stormwater fee but many of its municipalities do, and the city of St. Petersburg has an exceptionally good maintenance program, Araj said.

Along with damage to the bay caused by contaminants in stormwater, pushing the problem down the road may have severe economic impacts for the region. The Tampa Bay Nitrogen Management Consortium has been recognized nationally for its accomplishments in voluntarily reducing nitrogen loadings to Tampa Bay. However, new state and federal regulations, spurred by a series of lawsuits, are restricting contaminants to current levels even as the region continues to grow. (See Bay Soundings, Fall 2012)

It’s not clear how the rules and permitting will actually work, but the Southwest Florida Water Management District and state Department of Environmental Protection will strictly limit new development that impacts “impaired” surface water. (About three-quarters of rivers, lakes and streams in the Tampa Bay region are considered impaired because they do not meet at least one of the state’s standards for water quality.)

For any new construction, developers must show that stormwater leaving the property meets a “net improvement requirement” unless local governments make other improvements in the watershed to balance out the impact.

“New technologies will make it possible for us to meet those criteria, but we’ll all need to start paying more attention to stormwater,” Araj said. “People who may not know anything about stormwater right now will start to care one day — and we’ll all need more education about how our day-to-day actions impact Tampa Bay.”