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Temple Terrace wants Tampa to draw the line on the river, er, reservoir

TEMPLE TERRACE — Residents call the body of water that winds through this city the Hillsborough River. They fish in it, take their boats out on it, and enjoy the wildlife from the tranquility of their docks.

So it distresses many of them that regional water authorities view it primarily as the Hillsborough River Reservoir, which the city of Tampa taps into during the dry season to help meet its daily demand of 80 million gallons.

At times of severe drought, the river level drops so much in Temple Terrace that people can't take their boats out, said Ron Smith, chairman of the Temple Terrace River Watch Task Force. He wonders whether it harms the river's wildlife as well.

''You could walk across the river behind my house and never be more than knee deep, and sometimes ankle deep,'' Smith said.

Task force members and city officials say they have tried for years to get the Southwest Florida Water Management District to set a minimum level for the middle river — the stretch that runs through Temple Terrace — to no avail.

"We don't want the city of Tampa to be in position where they cannot get drinking water,'' said Smith.

But when the river gets to a certain level, which hasn't yet been determined, his group wants Tampa to acquire its water from another source, such as buying it from Tampa Bay Water, a regional wholesale water seller that helps supply six local governments, including Tampa.

Brad Baird, director of Tampa's Water Department, points out that the 1.2 billion-gallon reservoir has been used since the 1920s and was rebuilt in 1944 for the sole purpose of providing drinking water for Tampa.

He said Tampa is required by an agreement among local water authorities to use its own resources to meet its basic demand and not depend on Tampa Bay Water.

Besides, he said, that agency has its own obligations.

Adding to Temple Terrace officials' concern, Swiftmud hopes to start pumping underground water from the Morris Bridge Sink north of Temple Terrace, when necessary, to boost the level in the lower Hillsborough River, which runs through Tampa.

Temple Terrace City Council members and some river task force members fear that pumping from the old sinkhole will further lower the level of the middle river.

At a recent City Council meeting, Swiftmud's chief environmental scientist, Sid Flannery, assured city officials that the pumping would not affect the river level in Temple Terrace. But some remain skeptical.

To pump from Morris Bridge Sink, Swiftmud must get clearance from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Temple Terrace council members have sent letters to the department and to Swiftmud, stating their concern and asking to be kept informed.

Swiftmud increased the minimum flow in the lower river through Tampa after conducting a study that was prompted by the settlement of a lawsuit brought by Friends of the River, the Tampa river task force.

Mayor Joe Affronti said for years that Swiftmud essentially ignored the city's complaints about the middle river. He said that changed in 2007, when citizen activists and city officials, led by former council member Frank Chillura, formed their own river task force. The agency now sends a representative to the task force meetings — though the position on setting a minimum level hasn't changed.

Swiftmud's Flannery said that because the reservoir is a major source of Tampa's water, "our evaluation is that it is not necessary or appropriate to establish minimum levels.''

Chillura, while stressing that "our goal is not to turn Tampa against Temple Terrace,'' said Tampa would not have to remove so much water from the river if it was able to reclaim the estimated 54 million gallons of treated wastewater it releases into Tampa Bay every day.

Baird said that at least four plans have been put forth to divert that water for reclaimed use.

"The bottom line is that all those projects (cost) hundreds of millions of dollars,'' he said, adding that in the weak economy of the last few years, the city has not had the money.

Temple Terrace wants Tampa to draw the line on the river, er, reservoir 09/13/12 [Last modified: Thursday, September 13, 2012 4:30am]
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