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Core Issues

Tampa Bay Waterkeeper focuses on a core set of issues that have the greatest impacts on our bay and the people, animals, and economies that rely upon it.


Stormwater pollution is the largest polluter of the Tampa Bay watershed. It accounts for approximately 63 percent of the total nitrogen loadings in Tampa Bay, and nitrogen is the primary pollutant in Tampa Bay (Tampa Bay Estuary Program, 2006). An excess of nitrogen can lead to negative impacts on the bay, including harmful algal blooms, like red tide; reduced oxygen; fish kills; and loss of essential fish habitat such as seagrass. These impacts can negatively affect human health through exposure to toxic algae and can impact the economy through the loss of tourism dollars and impacts to local fisheries.

Tampa Bay Waterkeeper will work to reduce the amount of pollution reaching the bay from urban and residential runoff. We’ll engage with local governments throughout the watershed to better plan for sustainable stormwater management. Stormwater runoff is also the major vehicle for marine debris and microplastics. Impacts of marine debris include wildlife entanglement and ingestion, habitat destruction, and negative effects on local, regional, and global economies. Tampa Bay Waterkeeper will work with local partners to help reduce the amount and impact of land and sea-based sources of marine debris as well as help clean up existing marine debris in our waters and along our coasts.


Sewage pollution has plagued Tampa Bay and the people, economy, and ecosystems that inhabit and rely upon it for years, in part because of aging and failing wastewater infrastructure in the cities that surround the bay.

This pattern of illegal sewage pollution poses huge risks not only to public health, but also marine life and habitats in the bay. In addition to health risks like bacterial and viral infections in humans, sewage pollution can lead to increases in the intensity and frequency of harmful algal blooms like red tide. Red tide has caused massive fish kills, bird die-offs, and a record number of manatee deaths – 276 in Southwest Florida in 2013.

Wastewater pollution also contributes to increased levels of nitrogen, the bay’s single largest pollutant. An excess of nitrogen can lead to a number of negative impacts on the bay, including harmful algal blooms, like red tide; reduced oxygen; and fish kills. It can also impact the growth of seagrass, which is an important source of food for marine life, and a habitat for spawning fish.

Wastewater pollution harms commercial and recreational fishers, and the economies that depend on these activities. Many people rely on subsistence fishing throughout the Tampa Bay watershed, and wastewater pollution impacts their ability to feed their families with safe and sustainable seafood. Climate change will only worsen this issue, with increased rain and rising sea levels flooding wastewater treatment plants and inundating sewers and floodways.

Repeated sewage spills have caused many people to question whether they can safely swim and fish in Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay Waterkeeper aims to rebuild that trust by engaging with citizen scientists to test for water quality and inform the public of unsafe swimming areas through the use of its Water Quality Monitoring and Swim Guide programs.

Land Use and Transportation

Tampa Bay’ s development boom came later than many metropolitan areas and its urban form and transportation networks revolve largely around cars. This has enabled a sprawling land use pattern poorly connected by a network of often-congested roadways filled with people commuting from one city to the next, unable to rely on mass transit options that are common among metropolitan areas of similar size.

These land-use patterns and transportation networks negatively impact our public health, environment, and water quality. Air pollution from congested traffic contributes to the issue of increased levels of nitrogen in Tampa Bay. Due to the expanded highways and roadways that come with sprawl and poor transportation planning, we also see greater amounts of stormwater runoff and pollution, which include marine debris and nutrient pollution from nitrogen and phosphorous.

Since nitrogen is the single largest pollutant in Tampa Bay, steps to reduce this must include advocating for a sustainable transportation future, with reliable mass transit, safer roads for cyclists and pedestrians, and walkable cities and towns that entice people to get out of their cars.

Coastal Resiliency

The Tampa Bay region is a low-lying coastal region with nearly 3.2 million residents. It’s extremely vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise. In fact, in 2015 the World Bank identified the Tampa Bay metropolitan area as one of the 10 coastal metropolitan areas most vulnerable to flooding and sea level rise. The Tampa Bay region is already experiencing sea level rise and there is scientific consensus that this trend will continue into the next century, according to recent studies. The region may experience sea level rise between one to seven feet by 2100, according to the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel.

If we don’t adopt significant resilience and adaptation strategies, experts expect that the communities in our region will experience severe social, economic and environmental impacts. This includes flooding, threats to drinking water supplies, shoreline and beach erosion, impacts to coastal drainage systems, impacts to water treatment facilities, and shifts in habitat and reduced ecosystem services.

The increase in storms associated with climate change in the region may also exacerbate stormwater pollution, and sewage and wastewater pollution in the Tampa Bay watershed.