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Feds okay Tsala cleanup

After months of waiting, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally approves muck removal around the Tsala Apopka Chain.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 20, 2000


FLORAL CITY -- Citrus County got official federal approval Monday for undertaking six large-scale muck removal projects within the Tsala Apopka Chain of lakes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicated work can proceed on clearing six navigational trails connecting the three main pools of the 19,000-acre lake system, Corps spokeswoman Jacquelyn Griffin said Monday.

County Aquatics Division director Tom Dick said he would meet with Public Works director Ken Saunders to detail their plan for removing the muck. The so-called "letters of permission" obtained by the county allow it to clear 300,000 cubic yards of the accumulated dead vegetation.

"My best guess is ... we'll start sometime this week," Dick said.

The proposal has been wrought with controversy from the start.

Some residents, including members of the grass roots water group TOO FAR -- Taxpayers Outraged Organization for Accountable Representation -- began lobbying for removals months ago to take advantage of the drought, which has drastically lowered water levels in lakes. To recreate the current conditions would require a lake drawdown, which is expensive.

Sensing county inaction, they pressured the county commissioners into pursuing permits with the Army Corps. The county became frustrated with the corps' extensive permitting process, which required the agency to contact property owners living around the proposed project and consult with other agencies, such as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The impatience was fueled by the first significant rainfalls of the year, which threaten to make the muck removals more difficult. It put residents and officials in the odd position of hoping the drought continued long enough to complete the projects.

TOO FAR president Frank Robinson said he is disappointed the $250,000 project will benefit navigational channels instead of being used to restore fishing beds.

The funds come from Citrus' unspent portion of money used for aquatic weed removals. According to Robinson, the state Department of Environmental Protection told Citrus the funds had to be applied to weed removal areas, such as navigational channels.

"We wanted trails to clean our spawning areas," he said. "Is it bad? No, it's not bad what they're going to do."

Muck removal, Robinson pointed out, is a major component of the lake restoration plan the commissioners approved earlier this year. The new Lake Tsala Apopka Recreation and Water Advisory Board will analyze the need for a drawdown, he said.

The permit review would have taken even longer had the county proposed entering pristine areas, corps biologist and permitting team leader John Hendrix said. The corps would have required a more extensive environmental review.

"We tried to expedite things as much as we could," he said.

Currently, the corps has received 10 applications for large-scale muck removal projects involving more than 35 homeowners, Hendrix said.

Dick said he hopes property owners will allow county workers to deposit the muck on their land instead of bringing it to the county landfill. But he has not tried contacting those people yet, he said.

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