Odessa woman who fought in Tampa Bay’s water wars dies at 78


Several times a month for several years, Eileen Hart finished her night shift at a lab, drove home, woke her three children up, fed them, got them off to school, then headed to a public water meeting.

Mrs. Hart was a citizen, not a politician. She took on the local water authority after watching the water level sink on Juanita Lake in her Odessa backyard and figuring out the authority was allowing more than 100 million gallons to get pumped out of Hillsborough and Pasco wetlands each day.

“She was determined that they were going to learn what they were doing out here,” said Mrs. Hart’s husband, Bob Hart.

Mrs. Hart’s determination in what came to be known as Tampa Bay’s water wars led to reforms that, 20 years later, continue to revive area lakes and wetlands.

She died June 15 of cardiac arrest. She was 78.

Eileen Hart, center, with her children Rob, Stephan and Sue. Mrs. Hart worked with 4H for years, teaching kids to identify and understand plants.
Eileen Hart, center, with her children Rob, Stephan and Sue. Mrs. Hart worked with 4H for years, teaching kids to identify and understand plants. [ Courtesy Stephan Hart ]

The farm girl

Mrs. Hart grew up on a Thomasville, Georgia, farm. The family didn’t have enough horses for each kid, so those without rode cows through town.

While finishing her degree as a med tech at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, she met a dental student who was drawn to her calm demeanor.

The Harts moved to Town and Country, had three children, and it didn’t take too long for Mrs. Hart to convince her husband they needed more land and fewer neighbors. By the mid-1970s, they found the old home in Odessa. Mrs. Hart could envision the garden she’d be growing on the sandy, tree-speckled lot — one that had something blooming year-round.

After settling in, the couple watched as the water in their lake dropped lower and lower each year.

“We were smart enough to realize this isn’t right,” Hart said, “and there’s somebody who’s responsible for monitoring this…so let’s find out who it is.”

Mrs. Hart started making calls. She learned anyone with a permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District could pump water from the area’s underground aquifer. The Tampa Tribune, in a July 20, 1992 story, pictured her outside her home, showing how low the water dropped.

“The lake tells you immediately how bad the whole water situation is,” Mrs. Hart said in the article. “What’s happening now bothers us, but later is going to be much worse.”

Eileen Hart is pictured in a July 1992 Tampa Tribune story.
Eileen Hart is pictured in a July 1992 Tampa Tribune story. [ Tampa Tribune via newspapers.com ]

The water warrior

Mrs. Hart was a force, said Honey Rand, author of Water Wars: A Story of People, Politics and Power.

Rand worked at the water authority during most of the dispute. She got to know Mrs. Hart after. Some activists delighted in being nasty and sarcastic, she said.

“Eileen wasn’t like that. She told the truth. She underscored the facts. She called people on their BS,” said Rand, who now runs The Environmental PR Group.

In early 1996, Hillsborough County gave Mrs. Hart the Moral Courage Award for her work to protect the environment. At the same time, the Tribune reported, Pinellas County sued her and other citizens “to prevent them from blaming Pinellas for damaging the environment by pumping too much groundwater.”

That May, Mrs. Hart was the only layperson to testify in state hearings about groundwater pumping permits.

“She came armed with 10 boxes of reports, journals, newspaper articles and loose leaf binders,” the Tribune reported, “but needed nothing other than a polka dotted ball point pen to wave in the air as she talked.”

The fight lasted until Pinellas finally dropped the suit and the water management district created a recovery strategy. That conclusion didn’t make everyone happy, Rand said. Some residents wanted to keep fighting. Mrs. Hart embraced compromise.

“Eileen wanted to solve the problem,” she said. “She doesn’t get credit for that hardly ever.”

Eileen Hart gave back her Moral Courage Award, received in 1996, to the Hillsborough County Commission in protest against who it was named for. The man's name was later removed and the award returned to Mrs. Hart.
Eileen Hart gave back her Moral Courage Award, received in 1996, to the Hillsborough County Commission in protest against who it was named for. The man’s name was later removed and the award returned to Mrs. Hart. [ SCOTT ISKOWITZ | Tampa Bay Times ]

Master gardener

Mrs. Hart spent years as a water warrior, but her whole life was devoted to growing things.

She was a master gardener who presented weekly at plant clinics around Tampa Bay, through public libraries and at group events, volunteering about 100 hours each year.

Jemy Hinton, a 4H friend, remembers Mrs. Hart with “a magic steak knife,” which she always somehow had on hand and used for everything — prying up plants, cuttings, digging holes for potting.

“She was my best plant friend,” said son Stephan Hart, who grew up to be a taxonomic botanist.

Childhood trips to theme parks weren’t spent riding rides, he said.

“We’d walk around and look at the landscaping.”

Eileen Hart with family. Mrs. Hart also taught gardeners around Tampa Bay for decades. Her favorite topics, said friend Sydney Park Brown, an associate professor emeritus at the University of Florida, were camellias, bromeliads, begonias, ferns, propagation and native plants. Mrs. Hart belonged to several civic and horticultural organizations and created new varieties of plants herself.
Eileen Hart with family. Mrs. Hart also taught gardeners around Tampa Bay for decades. Her favorite topics, said friend Sydney Park Brown, an associate professor emeritus at the University of Florida, were camellias, bromeliads, begonias, ferns, propagation and native plants. Mrs. Hart belonged to several civic and horticultural organizations and created new varieties of plants herself. [ Courtesy Bob Hart ]

Now, her son is working on creating the Eileen C. Hart Botanical Garden out of what she built. Maybe her home gardens will become a research station, maybe something for the public, maybe both.

“She is still and forever will be a force,” he said.

Services for Mrs. Hart will take place at Keystone United Methodist Church in Odessa at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 7. If you’re going, her family says, bring a plant to exchange.

Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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