At low tide, Len Berkstresser feels his sailboat hitting the bottom of the channels.
It scrapes. It bumps.
"It's not a good feeling," he said.
The constant build-up of silt renders many local channels and canals too shallow to navigate, especially during winter low tides. To clear out the bottom-dwelling debris deposited by tides and stormwater runoff, Berkstresser and his Apollo Beach community plan to apply to a fledgling county dredging program.
"We're doing it because that's what's supposed to happen," said Berkstresser, 45, who lives in Tampa Palms and owns property in Apollo Beach.
But the yet-to-be-proven process might not be the solution that the Apollo Beach Waterway Improvement Group is looking for, Berkstresser said.
It comes at a hard-to-stomach cost, one that can sometimes be a bit of a dirty word.
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Many of the fingerlike waterfront communities along Tampa Bay were built upon man-made waterways, including Apollo Beach in the 1950s. The canals were dug into the land to carve paths into the bay, an attraction for valuable property.
Silt is always a problem.
Some of the sediment flows in from the natural tides; some of it comes from stormwater runoff.
As beautiful backyard canals turned into a smelly sea of soil, residents looked to government for help.
In Tampa, the city matched about $1 million of a $1.25-million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to dredge canals around the Westshore district. Slated to start this summer, this project bills residents only if they request additional dredging around private docks or property, according to Irvin Lee, the city's public works director.
In 2009, the Hillsborough County Commission approved the creation of a dredging program that placed work costs on landowners along the waterway. The culmination of a two-year comprehensive study, the county program provided an answer — if not a wholly satisfactory one for some — for years of frustration from residents along clogged canals.
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Before the dredging program started, 55-year-old Jack Berlin led the county's canal advisory committee.
Now his Town 'N Country neighborhood is first in line for dredging.
He submitted a proposal to slough out lower Sweetwater Creek, south of the Memorial Highway bridge, signed by 51 percent of the adjacent residents.
All of the dredging projects are initiated by residents, said county public works project manager Martin Montalvo. Then the county hires consultants to study logistics and legal issues, including costs and what to do with the dredged-up material, he said.
The county also identifies affected properties, calculating a way to fairly share the dredging cost between residents — one of the more complicated elements of the program, Montalvo said.
The Sweetwater Creek project is still in this beginning phase. "The biggest hurdle that we're facing is this has never been done," Montalvo said.
Once consultants complete a three-month feasibility study, the results will go back to the residents. Sixty percent of the affected property owners have to agree to establish a "municipal service benefits unit," a special taxing district to pay for the project when it's done.
Montalvo said residents will repay the county in either a lump sum or through an additional assessment on their tax rolls.
With residents' approval, the county negotiates final design and engineering details. The county fronts engineering and project management costs, Montalvo said, eating the expenses if residents choose not to pursue the project.
It could be months before the muck gets cleared out of Sweetwater Creek, depending on how long it takes for waterway neighbors to say yes.
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A sore point in creating the program was the residents' responsibility to reimburse the county for dredging.
Critics said the county didn't bear enough responsibility for fixing flawed draining systems, leaving out plans for permanent solutions and putting the costs onto residents along the targeted waterways.
For Berlin's neighborhood, that's not a deal breaker: "I think people are ready to see it done," he said. "The value to them from a property value standpoint is going to be the overriding concern."
But for Berkstresser in Apollo Beach, the extra tax may keep the dredging project from moving forward.
"I don't see people in Apollo Beach wishing taxes on themselves," Berkstresser said.
So while the group explores a proposal for the county program, it's also moving forward with private fundraising efforts. Instead of just immediate neighbors taking up the dredging cost, the group will look to inland boaters and surrounding towns to chip away at the price burden.
Berkstresser estimates it'll take $350,000 to dredge three main Apollo Beach channels: one near the TECO power plant, one near the Andalucia neighborhood and a third into Mira Bay and Symphony Isles.
"This is going to be a Herculean task to raise all this and get it done," Berkstresser said. His group of six members and dozens of volunteers will canvass communities, put pickle jars in local businesses and ask commercial and industrial companies to chip in.
The group banked $95 at the Manatee Festival of the Arts in March, Berkstresser said. On Wednesday, the group planned to hold a community meeting to answer questions and start getting the word out around Apollo Beach.
Berkstresser stepped up to make the project happen, but he knows that in a few years — five or maybe 15 — the neighborhood will have to dredge again.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.