TOWN 'N COUNTRY
When the hard rains come, Jack Peel knows what to expect: more garbage and high levels of bacteria in the canal that is his back yard. • Peel and his wife, Lynette, live in Bay Crest Park, a subdivision in northwest Hillsborough that was built on a series of canals that feed Tampa Bay. The Peels have witnessed the degradation in water quality since moving in 26 years ago. • Government officials also have noticed. As more homes and businesses encroached on canals and waterways, so did pollution. • "You used to see people swim in the canals, but we don't advise that anymore," Peel said. • A million-dollar state plan to restore water quality 5 miles upstream from Bay Crest could help change all that. The project to improve Sweetwater Creek is expected to also help waters downstream, such as the Peels' canal and others that have been further polluted with sewage spills in recent months and that flow into the bay. • Residents are hopeful but still cautious. The Peels say don't start swimming yet.
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A long-term project expected to break ground in fall 2009 will treat stormwater runoff before it hits the bay. The plan is to restore 11 acres of wetlands near Waters Avenue and Dale Mabry Highway.
The wetlands area includes a pond, roughly a third of an acre, which will be increased to 2.1 acres. The pond will be fitted with a filter to catch garbage and debris before it flows into the creek. Creating the wetland is expected to reduce bacteria and nitrogen levels in 145 acres of stormwater runoff from around the densely urban area and part of the 9-mile creek, which flows into the bay.
Also, nuisance plants like Brazilian pepper, castor bean and air potato will be removed and replaced with wetland plants like bald cypress, sweet gum and buttonbush.
Initially budgeted at $900,000, the project now tops $1-million because of an increase in engineering fees. The money will come from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the state Department of Transportation. Final designing, planning and permitting must be completed before officials can estimate a completion date.
"This is a small project, but every project eventually helps to improve the quality of the bay," said Robyn Felix, Swiftmud spokeswoman.
Clean water has been a focus these days for the Peels and others in Town 'N Country and Bay Crest.
Recent sewage spills in those neighborhoods did not cause Tampa Bay's decay, but they show how interconnected the waterways are.
In July, the county finished a $700,000 project that replaced 2,600 feet of sewer pipe. A section of the line broke soon after, in September, spilling 200,000 gallons of sewage into Sweetwater Creek near Hanley Road and Comanche Avenue.
A month after that spill, another piece of the new pipe failed, spewing 1.8-million gallons of sewage into Sweetwater Creek. A different line, closer to the bay, broke on Oct. 31, spilling 30,000 gallons of sewage down a boat ramp and into Bay Crest canals.
Pam Vazquez, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection, said a warning letter was issued to the county for the Sweetwater spills. The DEP is working with the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission to decide if there will be any further penalty. Vazquez said the creek had high levels of bacteria and pollution before the spills.
Now, the county must replace part of the new $700,000 pipeline, which is still under warranty. Water quality at the three spill sites has returned to levels considered normal for the area, said Michelle Van Dyke, spokeswoman for Water Resource Services.
"Usually mother nature takes care of these things within a week," she said.
The spills occurred at least 3 miles from the site of the planned wetlands restoration project near Waters and Dale Mabry. The restoration project will diminish the impact of such spills by flushing cleaner water downstream.
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Jack Peel, 77, is a retired technical writer for the military. Living in Bay Crest, Peel said he worries about the swimmers at Ben T. Davis Beach, which is near his subdivision. Water in the canal eventually filters to the bay's waters off Ben T. Davis. The beach was closed five times in 2007 because sewer breaks upstream sent high levels of bacteria downstream when stormwater runoff filled the canals.
The beach is monitored once a week for bacteria and water quality issues by the Health Department.
Evidence that efforts are needed to rid waterways of pollution: In 2007, 35 percent of beach advisories statewide were because of stormwater runoff, and 21 percent (1,516 cases) were because of sewage, according to the Health Department.
Lynette Peel sometimes worries about the impact of living near the polluted waters. After the pipeline broke near their home last month, she boiled water throughout the weekend and told her friends to do the same. (Water officials say the break posed no actual threat to drinking water.)
Referring to the county, Jack Peel says, "They don't do anything to keep trash from flowing into the bay. They have a mind-set here that they are not going to do anything and they don't seem to be doing anything."
Juli Milas has lived in Bay Crest Park for more than 30 years and is the president of the civic association.
She said that many of the people who live in the waterfront community are conscious of their impact on the bay.
"People that say it does not affect me are crazy," Milas said. "Something that happens a little ways away from your community can affect your community."
Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 269-5314 or [email protected]