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Swiftmud may lower banks of two rivers

The aim is to retain excess river water that otherwise empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The water would rehydrate wetlands and help renew underground water supplies.

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2001


The Anclote and Pithlachascotee rivers have been dredged, bridged, siphoned and shaped by the hands of humans.

Now comes one of the most ambitious undertakings of all: lowering the banks of the Pasco County rivers to restore surrounding wetlands and replenish underground drinking water.

Tentative plans call for diverting water from the two rivers only during high-water periods, said Wojciech Mroz, surface water manager at the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The least disruptive way to do that, he said, is to lower riverbanks at select locations to ensure water flows into wetlands during rainy spells.

Mroz also proposes installing retractable gates on culverts that feed the rivers. Like a stopper in a drain, the gates would back the water into wetlands farther upstream.

The goal is to tap excess river water that otherwise empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The water would rehydrate overstressed wetlands on 19,300 acres of Swiftmud-owned conservation land between the Suncoast Parkway and Little Road.

Trickling into the soil, the spillage would also help recharge underground water supplies stressed by years of drought and overpumping.

A third potential benefit is flood control. Diverting water upstream would minimize inundations downstream in low-lying areas such as Old State Road 54 and Seven Springs.

Mroz proposes similar water diversions for Bear Creek, which crosses part of the Serenova preserve near the Suncoast Parkway, crosses Little Road and the Beacon Woods subdivision and empties into the gulf in Hudson.

"It's a great idea" said JoEllyn Miller, Pasco's stormwater division manager. "It's also a big idea."

A big idea with lots of big questions.

Still unanswered is how much of an impact skimming water from the river will have on estuaries in the Gulf of Mexico, where marine life needs the infusion of freshwater to thrive.

Another question is how the project will affect properties upstream. Will plugging culverts inadvertently soak them with stormwater? Yet another concern is that reshaping riverbanks will mar the natural beauty of the area.

Those concerns will dominate the planning stages of the project. Mroz presented a conceptual outline to county commissioners this week under the heading Pithlachascotee-Anclote Conservation Effort.

Commissioners liked what they saw and suggested pursuing the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary to get it moving.

Mroz said his agency would seek "reasonable compromises" to guarantee the project won't needlessly tamper with Mother Nature.

"That's the object of the game . . . to figure out that there are no impacts to others," he said.

As for lowering the riverbanks, Mroz said: "You won't even notice it is there. It's very natural."

The conservation effort represents a rare meeting of the minds of environmentalists and developers.

Tom Reese, a St. Petersburg environmental attorney specializing in water issues, said Mroz's approach is far preferable to slapping a dam across the rivers.

Diverting water upstream during heavy rains actually helps estuary fish. Fish acclimate to freshwater during the rainy season, making them susceptible to salinity shock when freshwater dwindles in the dry season, Reese said.

"This is something we've been trying to do in a lot of different places," Reese said.

Two large landowners with property watered by one or more of the rivers -- Jay B. "Trey" Starkey and S.C. "Bud" Bexley -- also favor the project.

In the case of Starkey, siphoning water upstream will help drain his family's 3,000 acres north of SR 54, theoretically making the land drier and easier to develop.

"It can be built and tested for a few hundred thousand. That's the key element," Starkey said. "It's so low cost there's no downside to it."

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