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Spring's future not as clear as its water

Landowners oppose breaching the dike at Big Blue Spring. They fear tea-color river water will spoil the boil.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2000


ARROWHEAD -- Eight months ago, the Southwest Florida Water Management District gave the state permission to breach the controversial dike at Big Blue Spring, a small but pristine magnet for swimmers, boaters and divers.

People who live and own land near the spring opposed the plan, worried the spring pressure would not be strong enough to keep the tea-colored Withlacoochee River from spoiling the clear, cool water that emanates from the boil. All they earned from their protests at administrative hearings was a promise that crews would not dig the breach lower than the river bottom.

But these days, nearby homeowner Tom Spence can see his future. And he's not happy about it.

The state Department of Environmental Protection recently applied to reactivate its application for a dredge-and-fill permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps is scheduled to make a decision by late July or early August, said Fred Hand, an engineer with the DEP's division of recreation and parks.

"We'll have brown river water out here," said Spence during a recent visit to the spring, which pumps water into a man-made canal that flows by a handful of homes before reconnecting with the river. "We were hoping when we had a new governor he would rescind the order, but we haven't had any luck. We've just been kind of waiting to see what's going to happen."

Gov. Lawton Chiles and his Cabinet sided with critics of the dike in 1993 by calling for its removal. Since then, the project has been mired in bureaucracy.

The dike, built in the 1960s, has a storied history.

Maligned by some who claimed the spring area was sovereign submerged waters, and thus owned by all Florida residents, the dike was mysteriously breached in 1990. Property owners said explosives were used, but an investigation found no trace of such materials. The state allowed the dam to be rebuilt.

Tensions flared after that decision. In 1994, six men were seen running from the site, leaving behind four pickaxes and a 2-foot-wide breach in the dike.

Efforts to overcome the impasse came to a head last spring during state administrative hearings in Inverness. In late October, following a judge's nonbinding opinion in favor of the DEP, Swiftmud granted permission to breach the dike.

DEP engineer Hand said the state is sympathetic toward homeowners who live along the canal, called the Spring Run.

The application sent to the corps calls for removing 600 cubic yards of material and installing 2,300 tons of stone on both sides of the opening. The corps has not yet decided whether to grant the permit.

The plan would create a public hazard, local environmentalist Larry Hartman said.

"With all the rocks up there, people will be getting their feet, toes, hands hurt," he said. "Snakes like to hole up in rock piles. It's just totally wrong. They said they want to restore it to its natural state. The natural state is that whole dike wasn't there."

The department is trying to convince property owners surrounding Big Blue Spring to allow state crews to enter the area by land, which would be easier and cheaper than accessing the spring by river.

One new concern is the possibility that a new spring has begun boiling up between the dike and the river shoreline.

"We're a little concerned about the spring bubbling up on the river side and didn't know if that had consequences to cave in," said Sam Weaver, president of Big Blue Springs Inc., which represents the owners of 20 acres around the main spring.

"I still think it threatens the whole integrity of the spring, taking the dike out," he said.

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