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Water issues plague the Tampa Bay region

From low water pressure in south Hillsborough County caused by rapid development to a massive fish kill in Pinellas County waters caused by Red Tide, and the Piney Point disaster in April where a long dormant phosphate plant dumped nearly 200 millions of gallons of nitrogen-rich wastewater into Tampa Bay, it’s been a rough year for water in the region.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith, who sits on the Tampa Bay Water Board, and Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, a member of the Tampa Bay Estuary Board, joined WMNF MidPoint hosts Janet Scherberger and Rochelle Reback on July 28 to explore the issue. You can listen to the entire discussion here, on the WMNF app or on the WMNF MidPoint podcast.

The Piney Point release was the equivalent of an entire nitrogen load for an entire year in just 10 days, noted Commissioner Justice. That, he said, likely has exacerbated the Red Tide and the fish kill.

“You may not be able to trace the exact nitrogen particle from the Piney Point plant to a dead fish you pick up and analyze, but obviously there’s a connection,” he said.

About 1,700 tons of dead fish have been collected so far.

Justice said Pinellas County has received significant financial help from the state to clean up the coast, and the worst of the outbreak is over.

“It’s nothing like what you saw just a week ago,” he said.

Smith said the water pressure issue in Hillsborough County is due to rapid growth in the area that has strained water supply. The problem will be addressed with new infrastructure, but an initial project won’t come online until 2024 and then another supply project is due in 2028.

“In the interim, we’re in a tricky situation where the demand has grown faster than the supply because of sprawl. Sprawl has been outstripping our infrastructure in several ways. Water is just one of them,” she said.

The water pressure, she noted, doesn’t just impact households, but also fire hydrants, which creates a safety concern.

The problem arose, Smith said, because current models don’t accurately predict water demand created by new developments. She said the county is working on improving those models.

Smith also said the continuing problem of sprawl needs to be addressed at some point.

“We need to do a much better job of planning and smart growth and focusing our growth where the infrastructure is rather than letting it sprawl out where we have to keep playing catch up with the infrastructure,” she said.