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Bill would create two water councils

The proposed boards could recommend to the Legislature waterway improvements, including muck removal.

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


It began as a routine water quality test at Hernando Beach. But when Shawna Santin waded into the water in December, she sank knee deep into the brown muck.

"It was disgusting," the Citrus County recreation specialist recalled. "I got myself out but I was a mess."

One of Scott Adams' cows was not as fortunate. Parched, it recently wandered into the Withlacoochee River. Instead of a drink, it discovered a death trap.

"They get bogged down to their belly and get weak and eventually die when you don't find them," said Adams, an Inverness businessman.

When state Rep. Nancy Argenziano hears stories like these, she too gets a sinking feeling. Why, asks the Crystal River Republican, has the county's muck problem received little attention, especially during the drought, when lake beds are exposed?

"It's gotten to the point where we're killing our waterways," she said. "The cries are there; people are telling me we need to do something. They say, "I can't get my boat out. I can't fish anymore.' "

Hoping to raise awareness of this and other aquatic concerns in Citrus and Hernando counties, Argenziano has sponsored a bill to create separate councils that would have the power to recommend to the Legislature waterway improvements.

Clean water and vibrant fish habitats are vital, she said, because ecotourism drives the region's economy. Unlike panels charged with similar tasks -- the Withlacoochee River Basin Board and the Lake Tsala Apopka Basin Recreation and Water Advisory Board -- Argenziano said the Citrus and Hernando Waterways Restoration councils would have greater authority because they would report directly to the Legislature.

And they would tap into a much larger funding source. "I see House Bill 161 as absolutely a giant step forward in getting the funding to do what needs to be done," said Wayne Sawyer, vice president of the Tsala Apopka board.

A vocal critic of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Argenziano suggested that the agency's broad responsibilities have led to neglect of the issues that matter most to her constituents.

Instead of taking on muck, Swiftmud is consumed with permitting and other projects, such as maintaining scrub jay habitats, she said.

"Swiftmud is doing what it can. But what we need to have is something that is not tied up in so many things."

Using equally measured terms, Argenziano also criticized the Department of Environmental Protection for overextending its resources to remove evasive plants.

Some of this is needed, she said, but too much accelerates the muck because chemicals sprayed on the plants add to the sediment in the water.

The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has shown it can remove the muck effectively, but it lacks adequate funding to do so, according to Argenziano.

To that end, her proposal includes $100,000 for a pilot project to be carried out by the commission.

Modeled after the Lake Panasoffkee Restoration Council, which has secured millions from the state, the local panels would be appointed by the Legislature and would include waterfront property owners, engineers, scientists, lawyers and chamber of commerce members.

The bill calls for the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, with assistance from Swiftmud and the DEP, to develop programs to enhance fish and wildlife habits and remove muck.

The agencies would be required to conduct any additional studies as recommended by the councils. In addition, Swiftmud would be required to provide staff to assist in carrying out the councils' objectives.

A spokesman for the fish commission said the department was still reviewing the bill and declined to comment.

Bruce Wirth, director of Swiftmud's resource management department, also said it was too early to fully react.

But he said the additional responsibilities would come at a cost. "If you bring on something new, something else must go."

He disputed the claim that Swiftmud does not pay enough attention to Citrus, saying that it has focused efforts on storm water runoff and surface water quality.

"Removing vegetation won't improve water quality or flood protection," Wirth said. Dredging the bottom of the Tsala Apopka Chain of Lakes could be an enormous task, he added. Lake Panasoffkee cost more than $20-million, and the chain of lakes is much larger.

"The question would be, how much can you really get done and what benefit will that have?" Wirth said.

Argenziano expects that the bill will be discussed during this year's legislative session, which begins Tuesday.

"I think maybe we'll get it done this year," she said. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed."

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