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Wysong Dam rebuilt, raising criticism anew

For years, some claimed removing the dam hurt the area. Now opposition mounts against the restored dam.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002


More than a decade after it was removed -- in an act that spawned a contentious battle that simmers even today -- the Wysong Dam is back.

Major work on the reincarnated dam, which spans the Withlacoochee River, was finished weeks ago, and construction crews are expected to disband by Aug. 6.

"We're in the final stretch," said Bruce Wirth, the resource management director for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which is overseeing the $2.1-million project.

"I'm not going to let out all the breath I'm holding until they turn over the keys," Wirth added. "But I'm feeling good about the fact that we've gotten this far and had no significant problems."

The 250-foot-wide dam is, for now, submerged in the dark water of the Withlacoochee near the town of Lake Panasoffkee. Dam operators will raise the Wysong, which consists of pivoting metal plates supported by inflatable rubber tubes, when summer rains begin to recede.

Its purpose is to hold water in a reservoir of sorts and maintain levels in Lake Tsala Apopka and Lake Panasoffkee and feed the groundwater system that eventually releases its flow into Citrus County's coastal springs.

Swiftmud's removal of the the dam in 1988 sparked a bitter controversy, with some residents saying the action destroyed recreational and fishing space in the lake chain and harmed property values.

A group of the most vocal Wysong advocates took the struggle to a new level by forming a coalition named Taxpayers Outraged Organization for Accountable Representation.

TOO FAR, which was incorporated in 1992, all but declared war on Swiftmud, hammering the agency with a barrage of studies and testimony. For years the effort was dogged but fruitless.

The water management district pointed to studies that showed that the Wysong had little effect on water levels during its 22 years of operation.

Today, some critics of the rebuilding cite those same studies and suggest that the dam could choke off life downstream.

"All our property values are going down the tubes," said Patricia Cheston, who lives about a mile from the dam.

But the relentlessness of TOO FAR and turnover among chief Swiftmud officials resulted in change. Swiftmud embraced the project in 1999, and in September 2001, the Department of Environmental Protection issued a permit. Construction began in February of this year.

In addition to replacing the dam, workers built a new control house. Employees will be taught how to operate the dam this week.

A second boat ramp was also constructed on the downstream side. The additional ramp will allow boats to get in and out on both ends of the structure when the 16-foot-wide lock is closed.

The lock provided one of the few setbacks. It took about two weeks for work crews to replace bolts that had failed under stress tests, Wirth said.

The problem was that the concrete of the old lock was not strong enough, and water had seeped in. Pieces of concrete were cut out and poured again, allowing the bolts to be safely harnessed. The job cost $14,000.

Other than that, Wirth said, "We haven't had any serious delays. Everything showed up in working order."

Though finished, the Wysong will probably not begin to function until mid to late September, when summer rains begin to slacken.

"We're going to try to catch the river at its highest before we put it up," Wirth said. The goal is to hold the levels at 39 feet above sea level.

But some people fear that what may result in a bounty on one side of the dam could leave famine on the other.

They question whether water flows will be adequate enough to support wildlife. In times of drought when the dam was in place, little more than a trickle flowed, critics say.

Wirth said once the flow of water drops below a benchmark -- measured upstream in the Hernando County town of Nobleton -- the dam would be lowered to compensate.

Another question critics raise: What would happen if a tropical storm rolled through the area? Downstream residents say they would be stuck with two-edged sword: the water from Mother Nature and that released from swelling dam.

"It remains to be seen, quite honestly, what the full effect of it will be be," Wirth acknowledged. "At some point, we'll have some science behind those things we've been bickering over for the past decade."

-- Alex Leary can be reached at (352) 564-3623 or leary@sptimes.com.

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