INCREASE FRESH WATER IN HILLSBOROUGH RIVER, SWIFTMUD TOLD by Roxanne Escobales

09/26/06

A report presented to the region’s water board today in Tampa could be the first step toward reviving the natural wildlife of the Hillsborough River. After the presentation long-time Tampa riverfront resident Thalia Potter urged the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, to make the right decision and return the river to its former glory.

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Potter and her husband Sydney built their home on the banks of the Hillsborough River in 1955. During public comments she told the Swiftmud board they don’t see that idyllic waterfront scene anymore, and that the sight of a mullet elicits a cheer from them as it’s so rare. And in case there was any confusion, Potter reminded Swiftmud what river is.

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The much-anticipated report took six years with many delays to produce. It concerns the amount of freshwater received by the Lower Hillsborough River, which is the approximately 10-mile segment of the river from its namesake dam to its mouth at Tampa Bay. The dam controls the amount of freshwater let into the lower Hillsborough. As Swiftmud ecological evaluation manager Marty Kelly reports, freshwater makes it into the river only six months out of the year.

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Without freshwater, the salt content of the river rises as bay water makes its way upstream. The ecological habitat changes, and once flourishing species die out. Activists and concerned residents would like to see a return of the freshwater.

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Mike McCleary of environmental group Clean Water Action

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Clean Water Action, or CWA, and other environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Friends of the River recommend that the minimum amount of freshwater the must be allowed into the Lower Hillsborough River be set at 40 cubic square feet, or c-s-f, per second. The 6-year study recommends that that standard be set 20 c-s-f. Right now it’s 10 c-s-f.

The City of Tampa owns the reservoir behind the dam. Critics such as the CWA’s McCleary say the city has economic interests at heart by not increasing the minimum flow into the Hillsborough.

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But during the meeting Steve Daignault of Tampa’s pubic utilities department supported the study’s recommendation of increasing the minimum flow of freshwater to 20 c-s-f.

And then it will have to decide where the extra water will come from… That opens up another controversial topic. There are some springs upstream from the dam where extra freshwater may be used to replenish the lower Hillsborough River. But some want to use reclaimed water. Environmentalists say no way.

John Hendershot is on the conservation committee of the Sierra Club.

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Former naval captain Rich Brown has been involved with Friends of the River and water conservationism for the past six years. He says that Florida’s water regulations are too relaxed, especially when compared to other sun-belt states such as Arizona, New Mexico and Southern California. In these states water costs more and there are more restrictions on for example when lawns can be watered.

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But first thing’s first. Today’s report will be sent out for what’s called a peer review. That’s a panel of scientists outside the region who will study the science behind the findings. The public also has an opportunity to scrutinize the report. If the science is found to be sound, the Swiftmud board will decide on what minimum level of flow will be. The scientific peer review of the study will take between 60 and 90 days to complete.

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