Monday, April 23rd, 2012...12:41 pm

Perceptions and Politics of Water in Tampa Bay: Water, Power, and Conflict over Scarce Resources

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Several years ago I participated in a short term collaborative research project in Kenya and Tanzania, focused on “mainstreaming” gender and sociocultural context in Integrated Water Resource Management, funded by USAID and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). That research marked the beginning of my focus on the complex relationship people have with water, a growing topic of interest for environmental anthropology, geography, natural resource management, and beyond.

I am currently Co-PI on a NSF-funded project, Urban Development, Power Relations, and Water Redistribution as Drivers of Wetland Change in the Tampa Bay Region Ecosystem. The research is part of the Urban Long-Term Research Area Exploratory Awards program (ULTRA-Ex). 

wetlands impacted by water redistribution policies in Tampa Bay

As PI, David Lewis (Biology), explains in a short video about the project (, the goals of the research are to understand how particular patterns of urban development shape water redistribution from sociocultural and ecological perspectives. We are particularly focused on the changes that occur in the region’s wetlands and how residents perceive environmental change and participate in water scarcity conflicts.

ULTRA team discussing wetlands monitoring in Flatwoods park, Tampa, Florida


As water is pumped from rural to urban areas in the Tampa Bay region, ecological impacts include drawdown of the water table, which negatively impacts wetlands. The social science-driven research activities document values, perceptions, and knowledge of water resources and how this translates into behavior. These are not simply habitats for birds, fish, and other threatened species, and recreation areas for urban and suburban residents. Wetlands and associated freshwater bodies are highly valued by some local residents, who see these watery landscapes as constitutive of their sense of place. In addition to local people’s perceptions of water conflicts, we are interested in the distribution of power between different actors as regulatory decisions about water provision and protections are made.


The interdisciplinary team, which includes geographers, ecologists, and geologists, is documenting perceptions of environmental change in wetlands by local residents and how this relates to the power relations of decision-making about the distribution of water resources. Tampa Bay is famous for its “Water Wars” beginning in the 1970s, and political conflict over water provision for urban growth continues to the present. The team is working with regional agencies such as Southwest Florida Water Management District and Tampa Bay Water, providing opportunity for internships for anthropology students as well as education and outreach to the public on the power and politics of water redistribution and environmental impacts of such redistribution schemes.

Extracting core from wetlands in Flatwoods park, Tampa, Florida


The broader aims of the research are to contribute to “socioecological and urban ecological theory by investigating how social organization and distribution of power in a socioecosystem drive resource redistribution, and thus modify social and ecological structures and functions at scales much broader than that of the built city.” (Lewis et al. ULTRA-EX proposal).


Ulitmately, we will address the following questions with the findings from our study:


—What are social-ecological “drivers” of wetland change?


—How do resident knowledge and behavior relate to policy decisions?


—What are the links between shrinking wetlands habitat and decision-making about redistributing water?

baby alligator ponders full circle implications of plastic water bottle

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