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Deal reached in dispute over Hillsborough River

The agreement calls for a study that could result in more freshwater for the lower river.

[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
The dam on the Hillsborough River keeps freshwater from flowing to the lower river, which has become brackish.

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2000


TAMPA -- Environmentalists and the city of Tampa ended their legal battle Monday over a plan for improving the quality of brackish water in the lower Hillsborough River.

An administrative law judge was about to begin a week of hearings on the Southwest Florida Water Management District's "minimum flow" rule for the river below the dam that holds back much of the city's water supply.

But attorneys for the district, commonly called Swiftmud, along with a group of environmentalists and landowners along the river in a group called Friends of the River, joined the city in a settlement after 41/2 hours of negotiations.

The deal doesn't change the first phase of a program aimed at helping the lower part of the river.

By July 1, the city must send 6.5-million gallons daily into the lower river but not necessarily from the water supply reservoir. Instead, Tampa will pump water to the base of the dam from Sulphur Springs, which already empties into the river about 2 miles downstream.

Friends of the River objected to the plan, saying it wouldn't stop the dam from slowly choking off freshwater life in the lower Hillsborough. The group wanted Swiftmud to create a freshwater zone below the dam, said Philip Compton, the group's president.

But members ended up agreeing Monday to new parameters for a study they hope will force the city to release more and fresher water into the lower Hillsborough later this decade.

Under the deal, scientists will be required to test what effects releasing up to 19.5-million gallons a day have on fish, wildlife and plants downstream from the dam. That water will have to be less salty than water that flows from Sulphur Springs.

"The river's been given a stay of execution," Compton said. "This rule would have resulted in the river's death. The river gets a chance to prove it needs freshwater."

Tampa officials also were happy with the deal. They have long argued the city couldn't afford to release millions of gallons of water daily from the reservoir, which holds only an 18-day supply for 440,000 customers in Tampa and unincorporated Hillsborough County.

The settlement also retained a provision that let the city out of releasing any water into the lower Hillsborough at times when the reservoir level is low enough to endanger the "health, safety and welfare" of water customers.

"The settlement maintained the protections we needed for the public water supply," said Doug Manson, the city's lead attorney in the case. "But we also added protections for the environment."

Swiftmud struggled for more than three years to meet a legislative mandate to set a minimum flow, defined as the level at which a river won't be damaged by governments or businesses taking more water from it. A dam has separated the freshwater reservoir from the lower river for more than 100 years. But water regularly flowed over it until the late 1970s.

Environmentalists blamed increasing water demand. City officials said the lower Hillsborough slowly evolved into a brackish urban river and wasn't worth restoring at the expense of Tampa water customers.

Swiftmud finally set the minimum flow at 6.5-million gallons a day, enough to maintain the current mix of saltwater from the bay and freshwater from springs and storm runoff, officials said.

Agency officials told Friends of the River Monday they couldn't commit to creating a freshwater zone below the dam.

"We couldn't go that far," said Karen Lloyd, a Swiftmud attorney. "We couldn't guarantee if it could be done or that it needs to be done."

Scientists working at the direction of Swiftmud and the city will begin studying fish, wildlife and plants in the lower river this summer, Lloyd said.

They will then observe changes as different volumes of freshwater are added. The study must be completed by Dec. 31, 2005.

If Swiftmud decides the river improves with more and fresher water, the agency can write the requirements into a new rule the following year.


-- Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384, or at huettel@sptimes.com.

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