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A Times Editorial

Expanded dredging of channel should wait

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2001

Rarely has the Hudson Channel dredging project enjoyed smooth sailing.

Over the years, Pasco County government officials wrestled with projected costs, worries about sea grass damage, questions about how to dispose of the spoils, scrutiny from a skeptical state environmental agency and a 1999 gubernatorial veto of money earmarked for the project.

Despite the decadeslong setbacks -- the Army Corps of Engineers first studied the idea in 1947 -- the project to deepen the 3.3-mile channel is now moving forward because of a $1.08-million appropriation in the current state budget and a previous county agreement to pick up the $230,000 costs for design and to apply for the necessary environmental permits.

The project is scheduled for completion in 2002. The dredged material likely will be trucked off site to the Belcher mines instead of previously discarded ideas to spray the spoils along the coastline, build an off-shore beach, or even pipe the material to another location.

With work progressing, it is disconcerting to see the water potentially muddied now by a push from area residents to increase the scope of the dredging to boost recreational boating. Trying to expand the permit application now would be a mistake.

Residents and business owners emphasize that they can wait until the main dredging is completed. They should. The project was sold to the public on the merits of its commercial benefits. A 1986 federal study estimated the commercial fishing industry lost $500,000 annually because of down time. The channel's shallow depth, as little as 2 feet in spots, means fishermen must time their departures and arrivals with high tide.

Hudson area residents are suggesting five additional sites be dredged or cleaned to improve pleasure boat access to the main channel running west from Hudson Beach. Their desires are understandable. Who wouldn't want a more convenient route? But the timing is inopportune.

Hudson has more than 50 miles of canals, and most of the additional dredging is proposed for the shallow water along the western edge of the county. While the work would be a boon to waterfront property owners, the most tangible benefit to the public comes only if the route near Hudson Beach is improved for boaters using the public ramp at the county park.

Cost of the work and who would pay for it is undetermined. Considering the county doesn't have enough money to pave its hundreds of miles of dirt roads, expecting the local government to pick up the tab to improve navigation for privately owned pleasure boats is unrealistic.

Even without the additional work, a deeper Hudson Channel provides an economic benefit to the vicinity. Commercial fishing will be enhanced, property values will increase and Hudson's sleepy blue-collar community will be ripe for redevelopment.

It is unwise to jeopardize that long-held goal for the sake of a shorter boat ride.

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