TAMPA — The pontoon boat turned the bend into Orange Lake on the Hillsborough River and shut off its engine.
Passengers spotted terns and a limpkin, which is a species of special concern.
"I lived within walking distance of this place. I had no idea it was here," Tom Krumreich, a longtime river advocate, remarked with amazement.
Krumreich was one of two dozen river lovers who donned straw hats, baseball caps and sunglasses on Friday afternoon to participate in the annual River Round Table State of the River Tour.
They were treated to a look at the largely untraveled middle river, stretching from Fletcher Avenue to the reservoir near 22nd Street that supplies Tampa with most of its drinking water.
"Those of us who live on this part of the river know how special it is," said Terry Neal, president of the Temple Crest Neighborhood Association, who helped arrange the tour.
The trip included views of the new 40th Street Bridge, which boasts a design conceived by King High School students; the city's water treatment plant; and the Greenwood Tract, a 47-acre flatwoods forest within city limits that has gone largely untouched by humans.
Generally, event organizers agreed the state of the river is good. That's the case despite a three-year drought that prompted the Tampa City Council to pass a ban on lawn sprinkling earlier this month.
Alison Fernandez, a Temple Terrace City Council member who serves on the River Round Table, said that in her neighborhood, river levels are so low some people can't launch their boats.
"There are places you can walk across very easily," she said.
On the other hand, she noted, that's typical in the dry season.
In recent years, Tampa has installed sediment traps to keep pollution out of the river. And after a protracted legal battle, the city in 2007 began supplementing the lower portion of the river with water from Sulphur Springs and other sources to keep the river healthy enough to support wildlife.
Now, the No. 1 issue of Hillsborough River lovers is passage of an ordinance that would prohibit the use of fertilizer with nitrogen and phosphorous during the rainy season from June to September.
Supporters of the ordinance say that during the rainy season most of the nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizers washes from lawns and landscaping into lakes, streams, rivers and, ultimately, Tampa Bay. That promotes algae blooms, which suck oxygen from the water, making it unhealthy for fish, birds, sea grass and other wildlife.
St. Petersburg passed an ordinance banning use of those fertilizers during the rainy season earlier this year.
Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission is expected to present a draft of a similar rule to its board, made up of Hillsborough County commissioners, next month.
On Friday's boat tour, Neal pointed to a lush green lawn along the Hillsborough River's banks, which he said probably got its look with liberal use of fertilizers.
"I don't want that on this part of the river," he said. "It's beautiful, but it's awful."
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.