Tampa Bay Waterkeepers keeping watchful eye our water

Tampa Bay Waterkeeper chair Megan Eakins with board member Dustin Pack.

Megan Eakins is leading more than just an organization dedicated to clean water in Tampa Bay.

As chair of St. Petersburg’s Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, she’s leading a grass-roots crusade, “a small but mighty team” of volunteers dedicated to making Tampa Bay safe not only for people on the water but the animals under the water as well.

Eakins, a Bradenton native, grew up on the water as she went sailing on the bay or lobstering in the Keys with her family.

“My parents were huge recreators on the bay,” she said. “I just grew up with Tampa Bay in my blood.”

But the recent red tide and the nutrients dumped into the bay from the former Piney Point phosphate plant, which allegedly contributed to the red tide bloom, is the kind of incident that brings her blood to a boil. Tampa Bay Waterkeeper has filed a lawsuit against HRK Holdings, the owners of the plant.

“We need to hold them accountable for not being responsible,” Eakins said, saying the group wants to close and deactivate the plant.

Waterkeeper was also part of a group that sued and reached a settlement with the city of Largo after its wastewater treatment plant leaked nitrogen for years into the bay, causing algae blooms and declining sea grass. The result of the suit was an upgraded wastewater treatment system.

Currently, the bay is clearing of red tide. But that could change quickly, she said.

“It fluctuates,” she said. “It’s definitely better than it was a few weeks ago in June and the end of July. We have tides and the wind working with us. It’s improving but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t change quickly. About 40 percent of the nutrients dumped into the bay from Piney Point remain in the bay.”

So, what can one person do to help the bay short of joining the organization?

“It’s a question we get a lot, what can one person do?” she said. “There are a few minor things they can do about nutrient load. Dog waste is a big one. That can go right into the bay as a high nutrient form. When you’re fishing, catch and release. The fish populations are suffering, and we ask people to do their part. Also, if you see fish kills, report them to FWC (the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission).

“But really what we want to do is hold people accountable, whether it’s private entities or municipalities or Piney Point. We want people to follow the acts and regulations that are in place.”

Her mighty crew of Waterkeepers currently numbers about 60, but it’s growing, Eakins said. The group is working to establish standard operating procedures and protocols so that volunteers can take water samples and gather information about water conditions.

Eakins said the group needs volunteers, and while some of the current volunteers have water science backgrounds, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper has room for everyone.

“We would love for more volunteers to join us,” Eakins said. “We’ve had a lot of people raise their hands, a guy with a water science background, a geotechnical engineer, and we’re excited to see who else raises their hands.”

If you’d like to raise your hand, contact the organization at www.tampabaywaterkeeper.org.

Meanwhile, Eakins is optimistic that efforts of groups such as Waterkeeper can help save the bay.

“We hope there’s a bright future for the bay,” she said. “We want it to return. We want tourists to come and enjoy it and see why we love living here. We are hopeful we can right the wrongs.”