To hear Hernando County Commissioner Jim Adkins tell it, the Peck Sink project was a $1.3-million taxpayer-funded sand castle built at low tide — useless and doomed.
So, after rains from Tropical Storm Debby flooded the sink, Adkins was eager to say at last week's County Commission meeting, "I told you so."
All of which prepared me to witness a disastrous waste of taxpayer money on Monday, when I visited the water purification ponds at Peck Sink with the county employee who did the most to bring them about, water resource coordinator John Burnett.
Instead, they looked as though they'd held up pretty well. Some of the banks are eroded, but most aren't. Their grass covering has a matted, soggy-dog look, but a lot of it is still there.
In fact, after Burnett showed me around the project and explained how it cleans runoff from routine rains, I came away thinking that if the county went wrong with the Peck Sink project, it was by spending too little, not too much.
First a refresher: Peck Sink is a 50-foot-deep divot in the ground just north of Wiscon Road, southwest of Brooksville, that works like a drain in a bathtub covering 17 square miles.
This is not only a large flood basin, extending from Brooksville to California Street, but a highly developed one, with lawns, roads and parking lots. When it rains, the runoff carries gasoline, oil, fertilizers and pesticides, none of which should be flowing into the aquifer, the source of our drinking water, and the spring-fed Weeki Wachee River.
The county, using a state grant and money from the county's Environmentally Sensitive Lands fund, which the commissioners are giving voters a chance to dismantle in an upcoming referendum, bought 112 acres surrounding the sink for $2.3 million a few years ago.
Then, last year, it hired a company to start building two ponds west of the sink.
Runoff flows through culverts under Wiscon Road into the first of these ponds, which allows for the settling of debris — sand, bottles, cans and enough other garbage to make you depressed about the carelessness of your fellow county residents.
The water then flows into another pond, a longer one, planted with marsh plants that filter out pollutants, including nitrogen that feeds the snake-like strands of algae on the floor of the Weeki Wachee.
It's not the entire solution to restoring the river or to cleaning our drinking water. It is a good start.
By Monday afternoon, about a week after the crest of Debby's floodwaters, they had dropped about 5 feet. It was the first chance Burnett had to see the project after the flood, and he was pleasantly surprised by how much of the earthen embankments had survived.
They'll need some grading and reseeding. A rough, preliminary estimate last week put the cost at $300,000. It's worth it.
Would it have also been worth it to spend a few thousand dollars more on sod, rather than seed, so the grass would have been better established and better able to resist erosion? Probably.
I thought of that Monday. I also thought of one of Adkins' objections to this project. Nature, he said, should just take its course.
Obviously, it's a little late for that when truck tires are washed into sinkholes, which happened before the ponds were built. And anyone wanting to take a look at Peck Sink for themselves is stopped by "no trespassing" signs at the gates on Wiscon.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
Three years ago, Adkins and two other commissioners put the kibosh on plans to build picnic tables, an observation deck and trail on this site.
These improvements would have let residents visit, learn about and enjoy a classic Florida geological feature. They would have let people see that most of what Adkins says about the sink is nonsense.