Boat tour can change attitudes about a river

It doesn't look like this from my car window. That's what I was thinking while taking my first boat tour of the Hillsborough River last week.

Usually my view of the major waterway snaking through Tampa is obstructed by the concrete overpasses along Sligh and Hillsborough avenues or Kennedy or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards.

From up there, the river looks distant, and dirty. With so many larger water options around — Hillsborough Bay, Tampa Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and its beaches off Pinellas County — I had long ago forgotten the Hillsborough River was real "waterfront." It was just the place where we get our water. Nothing really to see here.

Okay, so I may have been wrong.

It was the sixth annual "State of the River" address, a news conference on water, beginning at Lowry Park Zoo, which helped sponsor the ride, and snaking into downtown. For 90 minutes we listened as people with long titles talked about the environment and all things healthy for the water and air we breathe, apparently disregarding the burly man in the back of the boat puffing heartily on a cigar.

City Council member Linda Saul-Sena interjected with points of information, as did reps from

the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, the Planning Commission and conservation groups such as the Sierra Club and the Friends of the River.

They shook their fingers at McMansions that disrupt the river's character and charm, not to mention their homeowners' use of pesticides to maintain oversized lawns.

They frowned at the seawalls or "hard shorelines" built to protect the homes. "Soft shorelines," such as mangroves, are best because they provide habitat for marine life and absorb pollutants from lawns.

A developer for the Heights project exclaimed how 49 acres of condos, townhouses and commercial space would revitalize the riverfront, making it a place for all to enjoy. And of course, proponents for the multimillion-dollar Riverwalk painted visual portraits of locals and tourists taking jaunts and dining.

Much of it was stuff we've heard before.

But the real signs of the river's viability were the couple we passed sitting in bathing suits dipping their toes in the water, the young people hooting on boats, the fish swimming, dipping and diving.

Phil Compton, chairman of Friends of the River, says freshwater now flows daily over the river dam into the lower Hillsborough for the first time in 35 years, creating favorable conditions for marine life. The change came because of a plan last year between the city and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, to bring freshwater from other local outlets. Friends of the River was instrumental in making it happen, and on Dec. 31, officials began transferring water from the Tampa Bypass Canal when necessary.

I took in the words as the sun reflected off rippling waves and a cool breeze wafted through the air.

Whether or not you agree with Tampa's grand plans for development and funding scenic views for a Riverwalk in distressed economic times, one thing neither I, nor you, could deny: The view is a lot more peaceful down there.

>>if you go

Seeing the river

The Lowry Park Zoo's River Odyssey Ecotour runs Wednesday through Sunday, although the schedule sometimes changes. Tickets cost $14 for adults, $13 for seniors and $10 for children. Discounts are available for annual zoo pass members and for combo tickets to the zoo and the tour. Call the zoo at 935-8552 for departure schedule and to confirm dates. Dial 0 for the zoo operator.

Boat tour can change attitudes about a river 04/24/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 24, 2008 4:35am]

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