It’s 1990. The Tampa Bay metropolitan population has doubled to 2 million in the past 20 years. The area relies almost entirely on groundwater for the 250 million gallons a day it takes to meet the Tampa Bay metro area’s demands. Last year, a drought started, and it will last for the next four years.
The onset of drought coupled with explosive population growth and urban development that continue in the coming decade means that water is being pumped out of the aquifer more quickly than nature can put it back in.
Satellite maps of the percent of “impervious surface”—roads, parking lots, and other areas that water can’t seep through—document Tampa’s growth in just one decade (1991, at left; 2002, right). Tampa itself gets more “built up,” and significant increases in impervious surfaces are obvious in the northwest and southeast metro areas. (Maps by NOAA Climate.gov team based on data from the U.S. Geological Survey.)
The result is massive environmental degradation. Wetlands and lakes have disappeared, drained from the bottom up. As the water table sinks lower and lower, land has subsided. Sinkholes have toppled trees and cracked house foundations.
Tampa Bay Water was born out of the previous decades’ catastrophe and charged with finding a way to make sure there was enough water for “everything from fighting fires to washing babies,” as Seeber likes to say, while also restoring the wetlands, rivers, and lakes that are a fundamental reason why so many people live in and visit Florida.
To avoid a repeat environmental disaster, Tampa Bay Water had to diversify its water sources. The agency built a reservoir, which opened in 2005, and then a desalination plant, which went operational in 2007. Along with a new state-of-the-art water treatment plant that can treat water directly from area rivers, the new options reduced their reliance on groundwater and gave wetlands space and time to recover.
Overuse of groundwater by the Tampa Bay metro area drained wetlands and caused severe degradation of natural resources, such as Stanford Lake (left). A new strategy using multiple water sources has allowed many areas to recover (right). (Photos courtesy Tampa Bay Water.)
But diversifying their water sources also opened up Tampa Bay Water’s operations to new challenges. “We’ve developed these alternative supplies, but now we’re more dependent on Mother Nature,” Seeber said. “We’ve got to pay a lot more attention to weather.”
Paying attention to the weather and the climate is part of Alison Adams’ responsibilities as Tampa Bay Water’s source rotation and environmental protection manager. After the geography lesson with Seeber at the treatment plant, I meet Adams at her office. A computer, books, and printouts of climate forecasts replace the pipes, tanks, and funnels.
Adams’ short white hair wisps across her forehead, drawing you straight into her piercing eyes. She speaks with a slight hint of a Southern accent, perhaps a remnant from her years of growing up on a Florida farm. That upbringing spurred her interest in the natural environment, particularly water.
Her wiry frame gives her away as a runner. When I first spoke with her in February 2012, she was in the process of training for a double marathon in Wyoming in May. If the thought of running a 26.2-mile marathon seems grueling, a 52.4-mile double marathon seems downright masochistic. For Adams, this is what constitutes relaxing.
Adams also pushes the limits of water management. “Unique,” “forward-thinking,” and “innovative” are a few of the words Adams’ colleagues use to describe her approach to water management.
In the 47-second video clip above, Alison Adams talks about the rewards of bringing climate scientists and water managers together to improve how the Tampa metro area uses water.
Under her guidance, Tampa Bay Water was invited to participate in the Water Utility Climate Alliance, a group of the eight largest water utilities in the West, plus New York City. Tampa Bay Water received the invitation because of its adaptive management approach to the sort of seasonal variability issues that western utilities commonly have to cope with.Florida's Fragile Oasis,