PALMETTO, Fla. - As millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater flows into Tampa Bay, wildlife advocates say they’re worried about a chain reaction coming for marine life while fearing for their hard work to restore the bay’s quality. Tuesday, state officials updated on progress monitoring the impact on water quality.
"They’ve been testing actually the clams and the oysters and right now they don’t see any issues," said Nikki Fried, the Florida commissioner of agriculture and consumer services.
The state is draining wastewater from a reservoir holding fertilizer byproduct at Piney Point’s abandoned phosphate plant, piping it to Port Manatee on the southern shore of Tampa Bay. The water has phosphates and nitrogen in it, two things normally not in the water this time of year.
"When you put nitrogens and phosphates into the Tampa Bay estuary, you’re essentially fertilizing the bay. And the first organism that’s able to absorb those nutrients are algae," said Peter Clark, the president and founder of Tampa Bay Watch, an environmental education center and nonprofit.
Clark said the algae then grows fast and covers the water, and a chain reaction follows that damages marine life, starting with seagrass.
"Seagrass is just like the grass on your lawn, it needs a certain amount of sunlight to grow. So when you shade it out with and algae bloom, it doesn’t allow the seagrass to grow and it eventually will die back," said Clark.
Fishing guides call seagrass a vital base to the ecosystem. It cleans the water, gives fish a place to breed, hatch, and more.
"All the birds, the fish, the manatees, and the manatees are having a hard enough time. When you start killing the seagrass off that these mammals are eating, you’ve got problems," explained Capt. Scott Moore of Moore Fishing.
Now, they're looking ahead to the rainy season this summer when even more nutrients seep into the bay. Environmentalists worry what’s there now will add up and make potential algae blooms worse.
"It’s important that we wait and see the quantity of nutrients that go into the bay how well Tampa Bay’s able to deal with that influx of nutrients and when the rainy season does come, how is that affected as well," added Clark.
There’s not a lot of chance for the contaminated water to flush out into the gulf, so environmentalists said it will linger in the bay. State leaders said they are looking at ways to take the nutrients out of the water.