Sitting with a Coke and a copy of Sports Illustrated, Jeb Steele looked out on the Chassahowitzka River and took a drag on his cigarette.
"This river is part of my daily routine," said Steele, 65, who lives a few blocks from the water.
"It's the old Florida look — the cypress trees, the moss, the laid-back community," he said on a day in late June.
Steele watched as divers vacuumed algae from the bottom of the Chassahowitzka — just north of the Hernando County border — as part of a cleanup being conducted by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
The work started in May and will end in September, before manatees seek refuge in the warm Florida water during winter months, said Philip Rhinesmith, senior environmental scientist with Swiftmud and the manager of the project.
"Who wants to have their kids walk out there and play on the beach surrounded by algae?" Rhinesmith said. "We need to get down to clean, white ground."
The water of the springs is a lens to a layer of suspended lyngbya algae, which have choked springs around the state and feed on sewage and other nutrient pollution, said Rhinesmith.
A healthy spring would foster eelgrass and other plants that attach with roots, he said, all food for manatees.
The name "Chassahowitzka" is a Seminole word meaning "place of the hanging pumpkins," conjuring an image of the river when American Indians lived on its banks and strung up gourds from the trees.
It's classified as an Outstanding Florida Water designation by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. In the 1992 letter proposing recognition for the Chassahowitzka and Homosassa rivers, Carol Browner, former secretary of the DEP, wrote that the rivers and the surrounding land make up "one of the most important natural areas of the region."
She cited the mangrove swamps, saltwater marshes and the relatively undisturbed state of the rivers.
Some of the water's purity was destroyed by sewage leaks that spread from new homes to canals developed in the 1960s to connect with the river, Rhinesmith said. The accumulated sediment prompted Citrus County to ask Swiftmud to study the feasibility of a cleanup in 2005. Four years later, when the study was complete, the district hired consultants to design the project and help with permits. In 2012, Swiftmud got the funding, contributing about half the total, $772, 914, and drawing the rest from a state trust fund.
Project costs included everything from the asphalt used to contain dumpsters full of algae in the parking lot of the Chassahowitzka campground to the hiring of archaeologists who sort the American Indian pottery found by divers in the river, Rhinesmith said.
He emphasized that the campground and kayak rentals will run normally this summer.
"I want to have a minimal impact on the finances of everything here," he said. "This is a big undertaking. Hopefully by the end we'll have a place where kids can play.
Alison Barnwell can be reached at (352)754-6114 or [email protected]