Water quality is the focus of a St. Pete ballot question

BY DANIELLE VON DREELE, USF St. Pete Neighborhood News Bureau

If there's one thing all St. Petersburg residents can agree on, it's that the quality of the city's abundant water ought to be heavily protected.

Tampa Bay’s warm, shallow waters have for years been murky with pollution from dredging, industrial emissions and wastewater — this past summer's sewage dump being a case in point, though ongoing efforts to improve water quality in the region have had some success. An effort up for vote on the city ballot today could enhance those with increased protections to seagrass beds.

Referendum question No.1 asks residents to decide if the City Council should be allowed to establish permanent development restrictions over underwater areas the city controls near North Shore Park. The restrictions would prevent any development or construction projects near or on the area's seagrass beds. These protections are intended to support and enhance seagrass beds that can be used to improve the city’s water quality and surrounding ecology.

Tess Chibirka, a volunteer at the Suncoast chapter of the Florida Sierra Club, said that poor water quality is a result of overdevelopment.

“That’s great that our city is growing, but we don’t have enough infrastructure to handle it,” said Chibirka.

Currently, any decisions regarding the placement of protections on seagrass beds must be approved through a referendum. Christian Haas, a member of the Old Southeast Neighborhood Association, said if the referendum passes, the City Council will no longer have to wait annually for each election to add future protections for seagrass beds.

"Every time they (City Council) want to change (add protections), they have to go through referendum," said Haas. "This is a permanent reservation, so changes can happen without a city-wide referendum."

Researchers are noticing a correlation between seagrass bed populations and water quality. Carlos Frey, an engineer for the City of St. Petersburg, said seagrass beds and water quality benefit from each other in different ways.

"One of the things that we use as a measure of our success is the amount of seagrass out (in Tampa Bay),” said Frey.

According to Haas, seagrass beds filter out toxins in the water, curb erosion and aid in filtration. The Bay's water clarity also allows for sunlight to reach seagrass beds rooted deep below the surface.

“Seagrass needs light,” said Nanette Holland O'Hara, the Public Outreach Coordinator for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. “If it doesn't get light, it can't grow.”

Groups like the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and The Nitrogen Management Consortium are already working to increase the number of seagrass beds in the Bay. According to O'Hara, the amount of seagrass beds grew from 20,000 acres in 1990 to 40,295 acres this year. The number exceeds the 38,000 acres of seagrass that existed in the 1950s.

The ordinance for the referendum does not clarify which parts of North Shore are protected. While some speculate the referendum only applies to seagrass beds between the Coffee Pot Bayou Canal and the Pier, Haas believes the initiative will affect the city's overall water quality.

"It doesn’t help a specific district, it helps all of St. Petersburg," said Haas.

Though referendum one may enhance the city’s water quality, the full impact of the ballot will only be determined when its perimeters are clearly established.

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