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Dry wells intensify dilemma

Residents of Lake Tsala Gardens are divided by a plan to extend Inverness' water service to their community as the drought effects worsen.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001


INVERNESS -- Beverly Wykoff went to the kitchen that morning, as she does every morning, to get a glass of water and take her daily pills.

Except two Fridays ago, no water came out of the faucet.

"Oh, what a terrible feeling," said Wykoff, 65, shaking her head.

The drought has caused the aquifer to sink so low, she said, that her well pump can no longer draw water from the ground at her Lake Tsala Gardens home.

"You don't realize how many times you go to the faucet," said Wykoff, who is using water from her neighbors, the community's club house and store-bought bottles until her new well is ready.

During the downpour last Wednesday, she collected eight buckets of rainwater to flush her toilets.

"It's been a real challenge, to say the least," she said.

Water has always been the draw, and the drag, for Lake Tsala Gardens, a winding community of about 168 homes on the cusp of Big Lake Henderson.

Most of the homeowners moved here to spend their retirement on the waterfront. But when it comes to drinking water, the shallow wells at some homes produce water with a brownish tinge and a sulfuric smell.

And in some cases, the water is undrinkable even after going through the home filtration systems.

Concerns about water quality have grown to include water quantity, now that the drought has caused the aquifer in this region to fall 2.8 feet below the low-end of normal.

Wykoff is one of four residents whose wells have gone dry in recent months, Lake Tsala Gardens Homeowners Association vice president Bill Lambert said.

"The situation is getting critical, with contaminated wells and dry wells," said Lambert, 66. "It's going to get a hell of a lot worse before it gets better."

The solution, Lambert said, would be for the city of Inverness to extend its central water lines to serve Lake Tsala Gardens. The city's system already runs to neighboring Cypress Cove, and now is the ideal time to extend those pipes across a 50-foot canal that has been completely drained by the drought, he said.

The Inverness City Council voted last month to move forward with plans to extend central water to the area -- the first step in a long process that will include several public hearings before anything is final.

Even with the water situation worsening in Lake Tsala Gardens, the concept of central city water remains controversial.

"There are about a dozen who just don't want it, and some others are afraid (that receiving city water could lead to) annexation," Lambert said. "About 50 percent of the people here, however, would love to have it."

Included among those who do not want central water: Wykoff, the woman who just spent $2,200 for a new 90-foot well and pumping system.

"We live on Social Security, basically," she said. "I don't know how we would pay for it." Making a pitch

Aware of the area's water quality problems for the past two decades, Inverness officials already planned on running a 12-inch water line near Lake Tsala Gardens later this year, while moving other city pipes to accommodate the four-laning of State Road 44 E next year.

"We were basically going to sit on it until we could convince the residents that a water assessment district is a good thing, and if and when they wanted city water, we'd be ready," Inverness Public Works director Bill Thatcher said.

But before the city could make the pitch, two residents called City Hall about two years ago and asked about the possibility of getting city water.

"Bruce (Burrows) came up one day and said, 'I'd sure like to see city water,' and I said, 'I'd buy that," Lake Tsala Gardens resident Carl Horn, 74, recalled. Burrows also lives in Lake Tsala Gardens.

"The water is bad. How else can you describe it?" Horn continued. "It smells like sulfur, it's full of iron, and that can clog up your pipes."

A white filter that Horn put in his water cleansing system turned Army green after just a month and a half, he said.

Horn, a block captain, informally polled his neighbors, and said most of the people on his street supported the idea of getting a central water line.

In the meantime, city officials drafted a rough estimate for running water lines through the subdivision. The total cost -- including engineering, construction, legal fees and connection charges -- amounted to $678,796, or a $3,750 assessment for each of the 181 lot owners.

"That's a ballpark amount," Thatcher said. "Without hard engineering, which we have done absolutely none of, the numbers can certainly vary. Even with hard numbers, it depends on what the contractors will do it for."

Before any pipes come into the subdivision, however, several public hearings will be held to allow residents to voice their opinions. The plan would only move forward if the majority of the residents support getting central water, City Manager Frank DiGiovanni said.

Receiving city water would not cause the area to be annexed into the city, DiGiovanni added. Several outlying areas receive city water or sewer services but remain part of unincorporated Citrus County.

If most Lake Tsala Gardens residents favor receiving central water, the city would work with the county to create an assessment district that would charge each lot owner for the cost, DiGiovanni said.

"While we would have to proceed for the greater good of all, we would have to look at what we could do to stretch out the payments so they're affordable," he said.

Aside from getting clean drinking water, residents would see their property values go up and their homeowners' insurance go down because the community would finally have fire hydrants, DiGiovanni said.

"To use the proverbial phrase, it's a win-win situation," City Council member John Sullivan said. "I think this would give us a good opportunity to expand our water system, which we want to do, to an accepting group of people who anxiously want it."

Options and needs

Lambert, the vice president of the community association, does not need central water for himself.

His red cedar wood home came with a deep well and a system that uses bleach and salt to purify the water.

But he has become a voice for his elderly, unassuming neighbors whose well water is undrinkable or has vanished altogether.

"Here's a community that you can see from downtown (Inverness)," Lambert said. "They're looking at upgrading downtown with some shrubbery, and our wells are going dry."

City officials say if the water line goes through, every resident would be required to hook up and pay his or her share of the costs.

That's a sore point with residents like Barbara Lincoln, who gets good water from her deep well.

"It should be an optional thing," said Lincoln, 74. "For those who do want it, I think it's desperately needed. But I'm in a newer house, we have a deep well, and we personally don't need it."

Other residents say they simply cannot afford an assessment of several thousand dollars, even if it is stretched out over a decade. One woman who declined to give her name said she cannot even afford to buy the new prescription eyeglasses she needs.

Lambert said he hopes to find other funding sources that could help cover the water line costs for low-income residents.

"The taste of the water is absolutely abominable," he said. "I feel it's so important to start getting good water in here."

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