Tampa Bay Estuary Program

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In 1990, Tampa Bay was designated an "estuary of national significance" by the US Congress, and joined the ranks of the National Estuary Program (which currently contains 28 estuaries) in 1991. As an urban watershed confronted with pollution, habitat loss and increasing development, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP) faced significant challenges. Over fifteen years later, TBEP stands as a model for collaborative partnerships, innovative agreements and approaches for habitat restoration and addressing atmospheric nitrogen deposition as a contributor to eutrophication.


Tampa Bay is Florida’s largest open-water estuary, spanning 400 square miles, with a drainage area nearly six times that size. While the Bay contains rich biodiversity, it is impacted by a rapidly growing human population and the second largest metropolitan area in the state. As of 2008, more than 2.3 million people lived in the watershed, and that number is expected to grow by nearly 20 percent by the year 2015.

In the 1950s, rapid population growth in the Tampa Bay watershed and increased urban development caused a significant deterioration in the bay’s water quality and habitat, and natural resources. Urban development, dredging, canals, and causeways have altered approximately half of the bay’s original shoreline. Forty percent (40%) of the Bay’s seagrass beds have disappeared since 1950, as have 21% of its emergent wetlands (Tampa Bay Estuary Program/TBEP).

Figure 1: The Social Network for Tampa Bay [1]


There have been multiple efforts to improve water quality in Tampa Bay. The first major study of Tampa Bay’s water quality was conducted by the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration (FWPCA) in 1969. The study’s findings, combined with grass-roots efforts in the early 1970s, led to upgrades in sewage treatment plants and reduced nutrient loadings. Then in 1983, the state established the Tampa Bay Management Study Commission to develop a comprehensive management strategy for the Bay. The regional planning council and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) were requested to identify the priority problems and develop recommendations and projects to be conducted as part of a Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) plan for Tampa Bay. This was the first organized effort to address water quality issues in the Bay, and it laid the groundwork for entry to the national estuary program (NEP).

Establishment of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP)

The Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP) was established in 1991. The governance arrangement for Tampa Bay is complex, and includes various programs implemented by multiple local, county, regional, state and federal organizations. The key partners include three counties, three cities, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. TBEP relies upon collaborative action through an integrating governance structure that develops management plans and implements them. TBEP spent its first six years conducting extensive public participation and scientific research to build consensus on program goals and the elements of a comprehensive management plan.

TBEP’s first Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP), titled Charting the Course, was completed in 1996 and approved by the EPA that same year. The CCMP assigns the bay's most pressing problems to eight action plans—water and sediment quality, habitats, wildlife, dredging, oil spills, invasive species, public access and education. The action plans are designed to help contribute to 11 goals, several of which are quantifiable and measurable. The CCMP was updated in 2006 after an assessment and identification of emerging issues.

Program Administration

The TBEP has a small staff that serves as a coordinating body for the management committees and the activities of the partner institutions. The TBEP staff perform a variety of services including: convening groups to discuss bay issues; conducting research, advocating for the protection of the bay; organizing projects to address bay problems; providing mini-grants to community groups; providing technical assistance; coordinating outreach; and serving as a member of other collaborative organizations in the Bay [2].

Two programs stand out as TBEP successes: 1) the Interlocal Agreement, and 2) Partnership to Reduce Nitrogen Loadings

  1. Interlocal Agreement

While the CCMP sets the goals and priorities, it is at its roots a voluntary plan without enforcement capabilities. Concerned that it would be seen as only yet another plan, leaders advocated for a more formal binding agreement between partners. After much negotiation, the partners signed an “Interlocal Agreement” in 1998, which committed local governments to attaining the CCMP’s goals.

The Interlocal Agreement has served as a model for other programs striving to meet more stringent standards for water quality. Each partner submits action plans that document how they support the CCMP’s goals and objectives. The regulatory partners have agreed to streamline their regulatory programs. Fifteen partners, including the EPA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a port authority and local governments have signed on to the Agreement. The Agreement has detailed rules governing its operations and decision-making procedures. It is important to note that there are no legal means to force partners to implement the Interlocal Agreement. Instead, it uses the power of peer accountability to keep partners engaged in the process [2]. Long-term stakeholder relationships, based on previous projects and initiatives, have built a tradition of cooperation among scientists and managers.

  1. Partnership to Reduce Nitrogen Loadings

Advanced wastewater treatment for sewage plant discharges was mandated by law in 1972. With sewage treatment in place, it was clear that stormwater and nutrient loading were going to be the biggest issues in the Bay’s future. While the local governments agreed in the CCMP to reduce the portion of the loadings attributed to municipal storm water runoff and sewage treatment plants, the remaining reductions were to be addressed by a Nitrogen Management Consortium. Established in 1998, the Consortium is comprised of municipal governments and regulatory agencies, local companies, agricultural interests and electric utilities. The Consortium took on the task of creating the action plans necessary to meet the CCMP’s goals for reducing nitrogen from atmospheric deposition, industrial point sources, fertilizer shipping and handling practices, and intensive agriculture. The Consortium’s motto of “hold the line” on nutrient loadings from future growth was central to restoring seagrass habitat.

Instead of allocating specific reductions to each source of nitrogen, the Consortium worked to identify individual or group projects that would achieve the reductions. This innovative approach helped identify the most cost-effective and environmentally beneficial projects.


The progress made toward restoring the Tampa Bay habitats is impressive. TBEP has met or exceeded its goals for nitrogen reduction and habitat restoration. Collaborative mechanisms such as the Interlocal Agreement and the Nitrogen Management Consortium have been critical to establishing successful partnerships.

From this foundation, TBEP has won stable funding, an effective land acquisition program, creation of effective science and citizen advisory committees, and the development of a collaborative monitoring program that has expanded to become the Florida West Coast Regional Ambient Monitoring Program (RAMP). In recognition of these efforts, EPA awarded the TBEP a bronze medal in 1998.

In spite of these successes, a number of challenges remain. As development increases, there is a pressing need for improved linkages and collaboration with the land use planning regulators.

See also

Internal Links

External Links

Further Reading


  1. http://www.buzzardsbay.org/download/nep-networks-paper.pdf
  2. 2.0 2.1 Imperial, Mark T., The Tampa Bay Estuary Program: Developing and Implementing an Interlocal Agreement, A technical report prepared to support a final report to the National Academy of Public Administration as part of their Learning from Innovations in Environmental Protection Project (Washington, DC: National Academy of Public Administration, July 2000)

The main authors of this article are Stephen Bloye Olsen and Glenn Ricci
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Stephen Bloye Olsen; Glenn Ricci; (2021): Tampa Bay Estuary Program. Available from http://www.coastalwiki.org/wiki/Tampa_Bay_Estuary_Program [accessed on 28-05-2024]