Commissioner-Charles-Justice-web
Charles Justice
Pinellas County Commission Chairman

Spring weather is one reason to get out and fish, paddle, boat or simply enjoy the scenic beauty of our bay waters. Another great reason is that Tampa Bay has made a major comeback in recent years, with impressive gains in water quality, seagrass recovery and fish and wildlife populations. It’s simply nicer to be on the water.

That’s thanks in large part to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP), an entity created by Congress in 1991 to help the community restore and protect our estuary. Tampa Bay is Florida’s largest open-water estuary, stretching for 398 square miles at high tide, and it supports one of the world’s most productive natural ecosystems. Estuaries like Tampa Bay, where salt water and fresh water mix, are nurseries for young fish, shrimp and crabs. Wildlife also abounds along the shore, including as many as 80,000 birds. And, of course, Tampa Bay is the centerpiece of our region, supporting more than 2.3 million people.

TBEP may be the least known and most successful partnership in our region. Partners include Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Pasco counties and the cities of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa. We’ve all worked together to approve policies and initiatives that have reduced pollution in Tampa Bay. We collaborate with federal and state agencies to use science to inform management and restoration objectives. Our best indication of success? TBEP is the only estuary program in America that is improving the quality of its water while the community is also undergoing population growth.

Since 2016, TDEP has leveraged more than $16.2 million in funding from federal, state, local and private resources for projects that benefit Tampa Bay. An important component is the TBEP Restoration Fund, which has received more than $4.5 million from 14 partners since 2013. Among the numerous enhancements: More than seven acres of oyster reefs were created,1,000 oyster domes were installed, 200 acres of seagrass were restored, and 175,000  marsh plants were added.

All of this is particularly important to me. I was appointed to the TBEP Policy Board soon after being elected to the County Commission in 2012, and I haven’t let it go because of all the great things we are doing. This year, I began my second two-year term as Policy Board chairman. We also have a Technical Advisory Committee consisting of science and technical experts from local, regional, state and federal agencies, as well as university researchers. Kelli Hammer Levy and Andy Squires from our Environmental Management division are the staff leads for Pinellas County.

So, what can you do? Well, for starters, buy a Tampa Bay Estuary specialty license plate. They are only $15, they look great with a tarpon against a sea green background, and the revenues fund mini-grants to citizen groups, schools and nonprofit organizations. Funded projects must be directly linked to the goals of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program’s Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan.

Last November, TDEP awarded $73,373 in mini-grants to 19 community groups for projects that directly involve citizens in restoring and improving Tampa Bay. As an example, a $1,940 grant went to Coffee Pot Bayou Watershed Alliance Restoration and Water Quality Monitoring. The funds will support clean-up events, invasive plant removal and water quality sampling. Canterbury School and North Shore Elementary School students will conduct ecological surveys and learn ways to reduce debris from entering Coffee Pot Bayou.

Something else you can do is volunteer for one of our “Give a Day for the Bay” cleanup events. Most of these take place during the cooler months, but we have one coming up May 11 in Safety Harbor. Volunteers will restore habitat in and around the Safety Harbor shoreline adjacent to the city’s municipal docks. For more information, visit www.tbep.org and click on either the “volunteer” or “stay informed” button near the center of the page.

It was my pleasure to bring you up to speed this month on this critically important and highly successful program. As always, if you have questions or comments, you can reach me at (727) 464-3363 or cjustrice@pinellascounty.org.