REPORTED by CHRISTINA HEADRICK
GRAPHICS: JEFF GOERTZEN
PHOTOS: JIM DAMASKE
PHOTO EDITOR: BOYZELL HOSEY
AUDIO: JIM DAMASKE, CHRISTINA HEADRICK
AUDIO EDITOR: JACK ROWLAND
MULTIMEDIA: LEE GLYNN, team leader, JOYCE EDMONDSON, MARTIN FROBISHER, JEFF GOERTZEN, DESIREE PERRY
PROJECT EDITOR: SEBASTIAN DORTCH

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Who Polluted the Creek
Stevenson Creek, one of Pinellas' most polluted water bodies, ranks on the state's list of "impaired" waterways that are priorities for clean-ups. The creek contributes most of the pollution found in Clearwater Harbor.

Among the water-quality problems are high counts of bacteria that indicate the presence of human waste and excess "nutrients" such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Nutrients feed algae that cloud the water, then die and become muck. Metals such as copper, lead and zinc also have been recorded in excess of state standards.

So who polluted the creek? While there have been fish kills that were linked to illegally dumped chemicals, the steady sources of pollutants are less sensational.
The city's Marshall Street wastewater treatment plant is the source of nearly half the nitrogen, phosphorus and some other pollutants that end up in the creek, a recent six-month study showed, even though the discharges are "within appropriate standards" according to the city. The treatment plant was a worse problem before 1992, when it was upgraded.

The other major source of pollution is storm water runoff, which carries fertilizers, pesticides and other debris from a 6,300-acre area into the creek. The dirtiest rain drains from a 535-acre area centered around the Glen Oaks Golf Course, a place that would be ideal to create ponds and wetlands to filter pollution from the water.

As for the sewage-indicating bacteria, some water samples have contained 25 times the amount of such bacteria that state standards recommend. Clearwater engineers suspect septic tanks at the north end of the stream are leaking, some outside city limits. But contamination from the city's system, such as leaks from cracked pipes, could be a factor, too.
-- Sources: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Preliminary Restoration Plan; Stevenson Creek Watershed Management Plan; Sediment Characterization and Removal Feasibility Study; Stevenson Creek Intensive Survey Documentation.

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SOURCES: City of Clearwater Public Works Administration interviews and files; Stevenson Creek Watershed Management Plan; Times files; Clearwater, A Pictorial History by Mike Sanders
By CHRISTINA HEADRICK, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 10, 2006


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[Times photos: Jim Damaske]
A wall keeps Stevenson Creek from claiming houses North of Browning Street.
CLEARWATER -- Stevenson Creek's bounty once seemed limitless.

Old-timers remember how a rainbow of birds, from roseate spoonbills to blue herons, waded along the creek. They recall how the creek's mouth teemed with redfish, trout, snook, blue crabs and scallops. How leaping schools of mullet performed a water ballet. How dolphins romped. And manatees idled.

At least, those are the stories Bill and Lorraine Basore have heard.

These days, when the couple walk to their dock, they're confronted by tennis balls, beer cans and old shoes littering the creek's banks. A heron perches on a crusty lawn chair, just above murky, polluted water.

Standing on his dock, Bill Basore, 59, leans over and drops a metal rod into the creek. Immediately it sinks 4 feet into chocolate-colored muck, which has filled the creek's mouth and ruined habitat for aquatic plants and fish. Basore hoists the rod back up, dripping with muck.

"It doesn't smell good, does it?" he asks, posing a question he all too well knows the answer to.

"We have to live with it, and it's not pleasant," says Lorraine Basore, 58. "We're going to keep at them until they do something about the creek. They can't make us give up."

Fighting city hall is nothing new for the people of Stevenson Creek. As varied as the wildlife the creek once held, they are a determined lot, bound together by 4 miles of polluted water, eroding creek banks and one more thing: A simple belief that what happened here is wrong.

Finally, after countless petitions, letters and meetings, it appears someone is listening. City engineers have crafted an ambitious and possibly controversial plan that could cost taxpayers $35-million but restore the creek's former bounty.

How it took 20 years to get to this point offers a lesson in the power of perseverance and one of the longest grass-roots campaigns in city history.

Stevenson Creek blues

If you could follow the history of Stevenson Creek back through time, you'd end up sitting in the kitchen of Cherry Harris. One of the more feisty voices of North Greenwood, the city's longtime African-American community, she could look out her kitchen window and see the creek.

Smelly muck was filling up the estuary. And discharges from a sewer plant in the neighborhood were one source of pollutants worsening the water quality, city records show.

"It smells. It's terrible," Harris complained in 1984. At the time, Harris was in the middle of a new petition drive to ask the city to dredge the mouth of the creek.

But city officials denied the requests, leaving North Greenwood residents bitter. Harris died in 1997.

While water quality was the problem on the creek's northern end, where Harris lived, development was complicating matters to the south. Decades' worth of new buildings, homes and asphalt covered the ground that once soaked up or slowed rainwater that flowed into the creek. During a severe storm, there would be a lot of water with nowhere to go.

On a rainy day in July 1987, Karen Heidenreich, a bank branch manager, headed home to her neighborhood off Hillcrest Avenue in central Clearwater. Her family lived near the creek but didn't have flood insurance because they were told their house was outside the flood zone.

On this day, police forced Heidenreich to detour, because her neighborhood had become a vast lake. Heidenreich parked blocks away and hiked to see her house. Her husband already was there, wading through waist-deep water.

"Everything's ruined!" he shouted to her. An elderly neighbor was being evacuated by canoe. A Toyota trying to drive through the area veered into the creek and submerged. Heidenreich's husband jumped in and helped the driver get out. Over the next year, there would be two more floods, with similar experiences.

The toll was heavy. Heidenreich, now 43, remembers throwing away her favorite, broken-in shoes and trying to dry out old Clearwater High School yearbooks. Her two kids lost stuffed animals. Throughout the neighborhood, cars and carpet were ruined. One neighbor died of a heart attack after a day of ripping carpet from his home.

Heidenreich gathered petition signatures to ask the city to prevent future flooding. In 1988, the city put together a plan to turn Stevenson Creek into a concrete channel that would sweep water away quickly. The creek was just a drainage ditch, anyway.

Or so the city thought.

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Theodore Britton carries his shoe after losing it when he pulled his leg out of the gooey muck he sank into on the bottom of Stevenson Creek while he was walking in the shallow water. Britton was cast netting and crabbing in the creek near Alt. U.S. 19.

Save It! Don't Pave It!

Around the time the city was completing its new plan, Mike Foley, a computer programmer, was living on Stevenson Creek and began to notice unnatural foams and oil slicks on the water.

The creek would become an obsession for Foley, a Vietnam veteran who had later protested the war. He put his career on the back burner for seven years and worked to help Stevenson Creek.

Foley hiked the creek's banks, photographing garbage and oil, even what appeared to be sewage. He discovered that a carwash was dumping dirty, soapy water into the creek, and that city garbage trucks were being washed with caustic cleaners over grates that drained into the waterway.

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A yellow-crowned night heron waits for a fiddler crab to pop up from it's hole in the mucky bank of the Stevenson Creek estuary at low tide.
Then, Foley came across the city's plan to pave miles of the creek with concrete. Doing this, he thought, would worsen pollution in the creek's estuary. Water would be funneled downstream more quickly in concrete channels, without the benefit of wetlands that could filter pollution from the water.

Foley rode his bike up and down the creek, getting to know people whom he asked to help stop the plan. He visited Cherry Harris often, and she doled out tips on dealing with city politics.

Foley and his brother, John, researched how urban streams were being restored around the country, while the city was using pricey lawyers and engineers to explain why the concrete plan would work. There were similar plans, at the time, for all the county's major creeks.

"We had to win, or the engineers might have totally destroyed all of the creeks in the county," Foley said.

The Foley brothers galvanized a loose coalition to fight the plan that included the Audubon Society, Sierra Club and League of Women Voters. They came up with slogans, such as "Save It! Don't Pave It!" They challenged the plans by filing an appeal with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, where officials also were concerned.

Although the city did pave part of the creek through downtown, the coalition did halt future paving by persuading state agencies to reject city requests for funding and permits.

"The city had an obsolete and environmentally destructive plan," Foley said. "Effectively we won. We stopped it."

But the opposition frustrated people like Heidenreich, who moved across Clearwater, away from the creek, because help wasn't coming fast enough for flood victims.

"The projects just kept getting delayed and delayed and delayed," Heidenreich said. "We felt we were stuck in the middle, and we were the ones getting hurt."

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[Times art: Jeff Goertzen]

A new vision

After the environmental battles of the late 1980s, the city decided to put a biologist in charge of the city's stormwater drainage program. Tom Miller said his mission was to figure out how to manage creek flooding and pollution, but "come up with plans everyone could be satisfied with."

Miller has had to deal with a new crop of activists, people like Lorraine and Bill Basore.

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A snowy egret strikes a pose from the wall on the Alt. U.S. 19 bridge over the mouth of Stevenson Creek
The Basores had no experience being a spur to the city, when they began going to meetings about the creek in the early 1990s. But North Greenwood activists inspired them. They saw how Cherry Harris and Willa Carson, another North Greenwood resident, peppered city officials with questions at meetings, demanding timelines and schedules for creek projects to begin.

They learned how to decipher city reports. They poured through files about the pollution problems at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Tampa office. They printed hundreds of fliers and handed them out. They knocked on doors, whether they were in black or white neighborhoods.

"People would be discouraged, telling us, 'You'll never fix that. You're wasting your time,' " said Lorraine Basore. "And sometimes I do feel that way, because I know that Cherry Harris lived there for 25 years or more and they've never done anything.

"But we have begged people to come to meetings, and said, 'It's your back yard.' And sometimes I have used Cherry Harris as my weapon. I'll tell people, 'You know she needs you to be there. Do you remember Cherry Harris?' "

Bill Basore, a retired mechanic, and Lorraine, a retired corrections officer, believe many of the creek's problems would have long been addressed if their neighborhood were wealthier. They're not alone.

"It's a cesspool right now," said R.J. Smith, 58-year-old retired welder who has lived on the creek for 12 years. "If they can't make any money on it in this city, they don't care about it."

"Our tax dollars at work aren't working," said Dan McCool, a 55-year-old retired firefighter from California. "That's why we're so frustrated."

Feelings remain just as intense across the creek in North Greenwood.

"Our community wants to have the creek cleaned up, because it's not a pristine environment," said Jonathan Wade, the North Greenwood Association president. "And people fish out of that thing."

Last year, Miller's department completed a new creek plan. Called the "Stevenson Creek Watershed Management Plan," it could take 15 to 20 years to complete and cost more than $35-million. Its goals are simple: prevent flooding while cleaning up pollution and restoring wildlife habitat. But obstacles, both political and financial, lie ahead.

The most expensive aspect is a $7-million project to dredge about 100,000 cubic yards of muck from the estuary that would occur next year at the earliest.

The other critical project, city engineers say, is converting Glen Oaks Golf Course into a large water retention area. This area would filter thousands of pounds of pollution and silt from water flowing downstream, which would help prevent the estuary at the creek's mouth from filling with muck again.

What complicates things, though, is that the city has plans to build a $300,000 golf course clubhouse. Clearwater also would have to break a 10-year lease the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation, which uses the golf course to help troubled youth.

Miller, who is leaving the city to take a job with a Georgia consulting firm, said the public's support will help determine how fast the city implements the plan.

He credits years of grass-roots lobbying with helping the city get to this point. "If the public didn't show up, it would make it more difficult to complete these kinds of projects," he said.

For now, Stevenson Creek activists have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. None will declare victory until the cleanup begins.

"I think the No. 1 reason for the delays is they don't think we can yell loud enough," said Lorraine Basore. "I don't think they realize that we're going to keep at it, and they can't make us give up."