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Plan to restore Crews Lake with treated wastewater is filled with hope

Pasco County has received $100,000 from Swiftmud to study a plan to allow highly treated wastewater to seep into Crews Lake, which was once the largest lake in the county.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Pasco County has received $100,000 from Swiftmud to study a plan to allow highly treated wastewater to seep into Crews Lake, which was once the largest lake in the county.

The damp, weedy, 693-acre prairie still known as Crews Lake may one day be filled with treated water from Pasco County sinks, showers and, yes, toilets.

Highly treated, I should say. But if you still aren't looking forward to taking a dip, you'll be glad to hear that's not the point.

"I don't want folks to think there's going to be water-skiing out here,'' said Jeff Harris, an environmental biologist with Pasco County's Utilities Department.

"If we can restore some kind of aquatic habitat and provide recreational opportunities for birders and fishermen, that would be a great accomplishment.''

Harris sent me an e-mail last month after I wrote about the disappearing lakes in the Southwest Florida Water Management District's Northern Region, which includes Hernando and much of Pasco.

The main reason these lakes have been going dry, a Swiftmud scientist told me, is because of generally low rainfall in recent decades, including the recent four-year drought.

But that's not the only reason.

Tampa Bay Water, which supplies communities throughout Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, still pumps about 16 million gallons of water per day from wells at Cross Bar Ranch, just east of Crews Lake.

That's down from about 28 million gallons in the mid 1990s, Harris said, but it "undoubtedly has an impact on (the lake's) water levels.''

Pasco's lakes and wetlands — and, as you may remember from the wells going dry in southern Hernando in the mid 1990s, groundwater, too — were at the center of one of the most heated water battles in recent state history.

Swiftmud and several local governments around the Tampa Bay area filed suits and countersuits, arguing whether these resources were being drained by excessive pumping.

A settlement created Tampa Bay Water and required it to drop its groundwater withdrawals from 158 million gallons per day in 1998 to 90 million gallons a decade later.

There have been several setbacks, but the water supplier has recently exceeded these goals.

This is considered a historic victory for water management and conservation. And I thought it had fixed the problem of Pasco being sucked dry by pumping.

Not quite, said Mike Hancock, a Swiftmud engineer. The district is conducting a long-range study on the recovery of the lakes and wetlands.

Some of them, such as the swamps near the Starkey well field in central Pasco, stand a good chance of revival. Pumping there has dropped from about 12 million gallons per day in 2007 to about 4 million last year.

Crews Lake, on the other hand, was once the largest lake in the county. And though it was prone to being drained by sinkholes, according to longtime County Administrator John Gallagher, several old-timers have told Harris that before pumping at Cross Bar started in 1980, the lake was usually full enough for swimming and fishing.

But for most of the last couple of decades, Crew Lake Wilderness Park "has (had) a pier and a boat ramp to nowhere,'' Harris said. And Tampa Bay Water, he said, has predicted it will never recover without help.

Pasco has a long-standing program to use highly treated wastewater for irrigation and now produces an average excess of more than 5 million gallons daily. The county is also building a main along State Road 52 to carry it across the county.

The tentative plan is to tap into that pipe, allow the water to seep through a swamp near Crews Lake that will naturally remove nutrients. From there, the water will flow into the lake.

In March, the county received $100,000 from Swiftmud to study this idea.

The project needs lots of permits. The wastewater might instead go to another site the county is studying, near SR 52 and Bellamy Brothers Boulevard. And the county must come up with roughly $10 million in grants to pay for all of the work.

Still, Harris thinks it could be finished as early as 2013.

I hope so. When I visited Crews Lake two weeks ago, the pier at the park led to a puddle, which grew somewhat after last weekend's storm. Most of the bed was covered with dog fennel, a fuzzy-topped weed, and several saplings that made it look as though woods on the bank would be taking over the old lake unless some water arrived soon to hold it off.

And if wading birds and bass came with it, that would be great, too.

Plan to restore Crews Lake with treated wastewater is filled with hope 05/01/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 2:30pm]

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