Tampa Bay's Water Wars

In the 1970s, Pinellas County and St. Petersburg were growing rapidly. With saltwater intrusion problems in local supplies, leaders had bought and developed water supplies in Pasco and Hillsborough Counties.

To meet the growing demand, St. Petersburg and Pinellas simply increased the amount of water they pumped from Pasco and Hillsborough. But the residents living in Hillsborough and Pasco and near the wellfields began to notice major changes to the landscape. Wetlands that had existed for years were vanishing. Lake levels were dropping and sinkholes were developing. The beautiful landscape that contributed to the quality of life in the region was changing and people didn’t like it.


"They didn't want
to believe it."

Derrill McAteer

Big Fish Lake
Big Fish Lake before and after photos showing the devastating impact of excessive ground water pumping.

St. Petersburg and Pinellas blamed the problems in Pasco and Hillsborough on a lack of rainfall. Once it started raining, they said, things would change. Concentrated (and increasing) wellfield withdrawals were having clear environmental consequences.  Pinellas and St. Petersburg wanted to use the water resources that they bought and developed, while SWFWMD, Hillsborough and Pasco Counties and environmentalists wanted to protect the environment. The fight went on for years while no new water sources were developed.

Pressure from the state legislature to find a solution to the region's water woes led to the creation of West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority in 1975. The Authority was formed as a way for Tampa Bay’s leaders to cooperatively develop new water supplies. The Authority included Hillsborough, Pasco, and Pinellas counties, as well as the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg. The legislature believed that creating the Authority would eliminate the competition for regional water supplies.  

Even with the Authority, local governments couldn’t agree on which new water supplies should be developed. As a result—none were. Existing water sources were worked harder as regional growth demanded more water.  Eventually, groundwater cutbacks in the late 1970s helped the environment to recover somewhat, although extensive areas remained impacted. But this first round of conflict was just a preview of what was to come.

Public Water Pressure

"...their wells were going out."

Eileen Hart

 

As environmental impacts due to pumping became more apparent and widespread, a period of drought in the late 1980s and early 1990s put even more pressure on water managers to find a solution.  But, this drought was different. Residents were angry that nothing had been done to prevent the widespread devastation to their wetlands and waterways. Wildlife vanished. Wells went dry.


"The balance of the environment versus water supply is essential "

Doug Manson

 

Impacted Wetland
Impacted Wetland

     
   

 

 

Throughout this website, you’ll have the opportunity to play small videos of people who were involved in shaping Tampa Bay’s water policy. They include activists, elected officials, lawyers and experts. All of them were involved in what is called, “Tampa Bay’s Water Wars.” We thought you’d like to hear what they have to say in their own words. We think you’ll appreciate their very different perspectives.

Meet the Experts