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Hillsborough River's Lower Half Recovering from Decades of Abuse

The Hillsborough River is in many ways a tale of two rivers. Upstream, it quietly meanders through a forest of cypress trees dotted with alligators. But the river's lower half is recovering from decades of being mistreated by the needs of a growing Tampa. This is the second of a two-part series:

To view a slideshow by photographer Joseph Gamble, click HERE.

Dawn is breaking as Captain David Walker powers up his fishing boat and heads north through the Port of Tampa. The port is quiet, as most of the shipyard workers have yet file into work. The rising sun silhouettes drydocked ships and warehouses with a backdrop of yellow and orange.

Walker has been a professional fisherman and fishing guide for nearly two decades. Practically his entire life has been intertwined with these waters.

" I was born right there - right in front of us - at Tampa General Hospital. so I'm from right here, basically," he says.

"It's kind of neat to be able to come to a place like this with buildings in the background, but yet catch our sport fish like snook and redfish and tarpon even -right here in this basin," says Walker. "I hooked a tarpon a couple of summers ago and it jumped up right on the seawall at Jackson's - during lunchtime. One year we had red tide- all the fish ran up into this part of the world - the fishing was sicko."

There was a time not too long ago that the the health of the river could be described more as "sick" than "sicko." That was before federal Clean Water rules prevented sewage treatment plants from discharging directly into the river and Tampa Bay.

Says Walker: "I'm finding seagrass in areas of the bay where it was all but extinct back in the 80's."

Now, the problem is runoff from all those nice green lawns. The phosphorous and nitrogen in fertilizer washes into storm sewers during heavy summer rains. And what's so good at creating lush lawns also feeds algae blooms that sucks oxygen out of the water.

So, many cities and counties - including Tampa and Pinellas County - have enacted summertime bans on using fertilizer. Tampa's ban begins today and lasts through September.

Many believe there's another reason for the lower river's resurgence. In 2007, a deal between the city and environmental groups took effect, guaranteeing a continuous flow of fresh water over the dam at Rowlett Park. 

Phil Compton is sitting on his dock in Tampa's Seminole Heights neighborhood. It's less than a mile south of the dam, where the river narrows into a meandering stream.  Compton, who was instrumental in getting the deal signed, points to a dead cypress tree bleached white. He calls the ghostly relic a monument to the city hoarding water in the reservoir beginning in the 1970's.

"With the increased demand as the city grew, the reservoir for the first time went so low that they had to cut off the flow," he says. "And at first it was a few days a year, but pretty soon it became like half the year, then most of the year. And this went on for three decades."

What that meant the river was starved of fresh water for much of the year. Salt water from Tampa Bay crept upriver, killing fish that rely on a blend of salty and fresh water.

So Compton and the small environmental group Friends of the River sued the city - and ultimately prevailed. He says the effects of the river's rebirth can be felt all the way to downtown, where the Riverwalk is reclaiming the neglected waterfront.

"The river, being this great restored asset, will really be the number one thing that drives the economy, the growth, of the city of Tampa," he says. "We've neglected it, but the great thing is by doing a couple of things the smart way - asking people not to use fertilizer in the rainy season and letting this water flow over the dam - it comes back to life. And that's a beautiful thing."

Back on the river, the fabric of urban Tampa is never far away. As Captain Walker takes us upriver and the spring sun slowly rises, the sounds of the urban world constantly intrude. The city's web of bridges comes with its own serenade.

"Even though you hear the grind of the morning rush hour and all that, it's still just ambient noise," says Walker, "when you have pelicans whisking right by you, and you have the royal terns over here fighting over a piece of fish. You know, you can still be part of nature and be right here in this big, urban metropolis like this."

And for Walker, the beauty of the lower river endures. He recalls one day he was skimming over the water to pick up some customers...

"... and I happened to be glancing toward downtown and the skyline, the sun was coming up this part of the day, and a dolphin jumped up right next to my boat, at eye level," he says. "And I look at it, it looked right at me when he was in the air. And he was just as proud - and arched out, back arched just like that... and it seemed to be in slow motion. It was right here, right at eye level, and below him was the skyline of Tampa. And it gave me goosebumps."

He hopes that future generations on the Hillsborough will be able to keep getting goosebumps.


WUSF teamed up with the journalism department at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and Terry Tomalin of the Tampa Bay Times to tour the 59-mile waterway.





Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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