Model from USF researchers forecasts fate of Piney Point wastewater

A computer model initially developed by the University of South Florida College of Marine Science to track red tide and ocean currents has quickly been adapted and is now being used to support the efforts to understand the transport, transformation and fate of contaminants in wastewater released into Tampa Bay from the retired Piney Point fertilizer plant.

The Tampa Bay Coastal Ocean Model has been available to the public as a nowcast/forecast model since September 2018 when it simulated how Tampa Bay responded to Hurricane Irma. This ocean circulation model, along with the larger scale West Florida Coastal Ocean Model, are used to track red tides based on the currents driven by winds, tides and deeper ocean forcing. These two models were immediately modified to forecast the dispersal of effluent water and its constituents released from Piney Point. The results, available for the public to view online, are being used to help guide interdisciplinary sampling efforts by a USF team, agency personnel and others in gathering on-the-ground field data to assess the impacts of the spill.

As the team forecasted, the highest nutrient concentrations presently occur along lower Tampa Bay’s east coast. The discharge water, according to USF researcher Bob Weisberg, is sloshing back and forth with the tides, while slowly moving south from Port Manatee, diluting and eventually making its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’re thrilled to be able to share our results with our partners and response officials,” Weisberg said. “We’ve got a terrific team on this 24/7 and are committed to ensuring our science helps inform effective action to safeguard Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.”

The modeling builds on USF’s response efforts quickly launched last week to help the region and state better understand the impacts at Piney Point.

“We are starting to put together the pieces of the story,” said Tom Frazer, dean of the USF College of Marine Science, “and are grateful for all of the efforts on the part of our state and academic partners in this all-hands-on-deck effort.”

The model will continue to be updated and can be viewed here.

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