A Resilient River – A brief environmental history of the Hillsborough River

Hillsborough River in Temple terraceJanuary 2020 – Since the first residents put down roots in Tampa, the Hillsborough has been a multifaceted and multi-purposed river, used for transportation, commerce, recreation, and as a dumping ground for the sewage and waste byproducts in the city’s early years. Gone unchecked for decades, the environmental degradation of the Hillsborough River was exacerbated by Tampa’s high population growth, brought on by the cigar industry boom, which outpaced the system’s capabilities.

The Hillsborough River Board Technical Advisory Council welcomed Brad Massey from the Tampa Bay History Center to present on the environmental history of the Hillsborough River at their December meeting. Mr. Massey summed up the river’s many uses, and misuses, drawing from his article published in the Florida Historical Quarterly, “The river was Tampa’s primary drinking water source, an industrial dumping ground, an suburban sewage receptacle, and a wilderness refuge for kayakers” 1. Enjoyed for recreation and its natural beauty, but also used to sweep the cities literal waste “under the rug” and into once clean, unspoiled waters, we look back at a few of the events that shaped the Hillsborough into what it is today – a river on the mend.

The source of the Hillsborough begins in the Green Swamp, where it begins its 60-mile journey winding past canopies of cypress trees and agricultural lands in the Upper Hillsborough, past suburban homes and roadway intersections in the middle river, and curving through downtown Tampa before making its way out into the bay. Each section of the river, upper, middle, and lower was used for various purposes, but the years after the World War II industrial boom saw unprecedented population growth and urban development in the area that has had a lasting impact on the whole river to this day. Between 1950 and 1980, Hillsborough County’s population jumped from 249,894 to 646,9602. The city’s developers, leaders, and even most citizens were so consumed with increasing growth and development that they wound up essentially poisoning the river they relied on so greatly. One of the main issues facing the area was inadequate sewage infrastructure, with many septic tank hookups installed by developers emptying directly into the river. While this alone should have been cause for concern, there were other major events that drastically polluted the river and finally made the public aware of how dire the situation had become. The first occurred in 1969 when “five companies and the Plant City wastewater department dumped inadequately treated waste into Pemberton Creek, the main tributary of Lake Thonotosassa. This dumping sparked a cataclysmic fish kill”1. Within 2 days of the event, 80% of the lake’s fish died. A few months later, a truck crashed spilling 6,200 gallons of oil into the Hillsborough, and Tampa’s firemen, unaware of the consequences, washed the pooling oil down the storm sewers, which flowed into the river and stuck to the hulls of boats, seawalls and killed marine life. To make matters worse, in 1970 an oil tanker spilled 20,000 gallons of heavy crude into Tampa Bay.

Thankfully, local citizens and environmental groups, like the Florida Sierra Club and Save Our Bay, Inc. took notice and embarked on a decades-long mission to check the policies of powerful local politicians and developers, clean up the garbage and pollutants in the river, and preserve acres of land in the upper Hillsborough. At first, successes were few and far between. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, tons of alum sludge produced by Tampa’s water treatment process was being dumped into the river sparking the suggestion that a moratorium be placed on hookups, threatening the progress of developers and government officials reluctant to restrain growth. Ultimately, hookups were not banned, and developers continued as usual without heeding the environmentalist’s now constant warnings. In 1978, the city’s new $90 million sewage treatment facility at Hooker’s Point began operating. Hopes were high, but the next year one of the facility’s wastewater lift stations had a major failure that caused raw sewage to pump directly into the Hillsborough – for months. The situation was so bad the Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) of Hillsborough County had to ban swimming and other activities in the river for one year. Bacterial counts were 115 times above the allowable limit and were toxic to marine life. By 1981 the sewage treatment facility was fully fixed and functioning properly, but the damage to the river was monumental.

No other city in Florida relies as much on surface water as Tampa does on the Hillsborough River. Looking over the calm surface of the river today, you wouldn’t be able to guess at the history that has transpired. Our natural environment appears so adaptable, ever abundant, and impervious to man-made development we don’t recognize its limits until it begins to affect our quality of life, whether that be putrid smells outside our homes, undrinkable water, or polluted rivers killing the fish it should always give life to. Pollution and unmitigated development led to the major events, some one-time disasters and some done slowly overtime, that shaped the Hillsborough River. It is our responsibility, as citizens, as stewards of the river, to check human wants against environmental needs. The river remains a work in progress, but with the River Board and a mobilized group of environmentalists and concerned citizens, the river’s health will remain a priority.

1Brad Massey, “Tampa’s Multi-purposed Waterway: An Environmental History of the Hillsborough River, 1950–1980, Florida Historical Quarterly, fall 2018, pages 191–220

View the rest of this month's Connections to Tomorrow articles