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Our Water

Located on the Gulf Coast of Florida, Tampa Bay is the state’s largest open-water estuary. Major tributaries include the Hillsborough River, which provides the drinking water for the City of Tampa and surrounding areas; the Alafia River; the Little Manatee River; and the Manatee River. Tampa Bay spans nearly 400 square miles and drains nearly 2,400 square miles.

It stretches from the spring-fed headwaters of the Hillsborough River to the white sand beaches and scrub forests of Fort DeSoto. The Bay is surrounded by three counties that make up the second largest metropolitan area in the State of Florida and are home to over 3.2 million people: Pinellas County, Hillsborough County, and Manatee County.

The Tampa Bay watershed is also home to a handful of colleges and universities including Stetson Law School, Eckerd College and the University of South Florida. Tampa Bay is flanked by the largest marine science community in the Southeast: the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute , the U.S. Geological Survey’ s Coastal and Marine Science Center , the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’ s National Marine Fisheries Service, USF College of Marine Science and the Florida Institute of Oceanography are all within a 15-minute walk of each other, encircling Bayboro Harbor in Downtown St. Petersburg.

An artist’s depiction of Osceola, a Seminole who led a resistance during the Second Seminole War, when the United States tried to remove the tribe from their lands in Florida.

The history of the Tampa Bay region has always revolved around the water and the bay itself.

Indigenous peoples, including the Tocobaga, Timicua and Calusa groups, flourished here for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century, thanks in large part to the abundance of fish and shellfish provided by Tampa Bay. Few of these native peoples survived the decimation brought by the arrival of the Spanish. War, genocide and disease wiped out most of these native groups by the 1700s, and as Florida came under the control of the English in 1763, several new groups started to move into the region to set up fishing camps along the banks of Tampa Bay. These groups, collectively known as the Seminoles, included a composite of Creek, Yamassee and Apalachee peoples, as well as both freed and runaway slaves from throughout the American South.

Later, large numbers of immigrants from Cuba, Spain and Italy came to work in the cigar factories of Ybor City, near Tampa. The arrival of the railroad in 1884 and the opening of Port Tampa set off a pattern of growth and development that has only expanded exponentially since the 19th Century. After World War II, the population in the region exploded as roads, automobiles and sprawl made room for the massive influx of retirees, tourists and working people who sought to enjoy the natural resources and beauty of Tampa Bay.

A photo of a Florida manatee taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region.

In the 21st Century, the Tampa Bay watershed’ s premier industry is tourism, which is dependent upon clean water and a healthy bay.

The Bay and the Gulf Beaches of the surrounding barrier islands attract nearly 5 million visitors each year. These tourists, as well as the residents, come for the clean beaches (one of which, Fort DeSoto Beach, was recently ranked as the number one beach in the continental United States), and for recreational activities such as sport fishing, boating, kayaking and wildlife watching. Tampa Bay is home to some 40,000 pairs of wading and shore birds, one-sixth of the Gulf Coast population of Florida manatees, and more than 200 species of fish.

Tampa Bay is an estuary where saltwater and freshwater mix creating ideal habitats such as seagrasses and mangroves, wherein more than 70% of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans species spend at least some critical portion of their lives. Tampa Bay is also home to the charismatic megafauna of the sea including silver tarpon, dolphins and sea turtles in addition to the beloved Florida manatee.

A large part of the culture in Tampa Bay, an eclectic and healthy mix of millennials and retirees and tourists and locals, are all connected by the desire for a healthy bay and all of the joys and amenities it provides. Recreational and commercial fishers are also reliant upon a clean and healthy Tampa Bay to support their livelihoods and to provide sustainable seafood to consumers. Indeed, the Tampa Bay regional economy is closely tied to both the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay. It is valued at $170 billion, with $51 billion directly influenced by the bay itself.