DUNEDIN — The smell of feces hangs in the air around Cedar Creek. Dead fish litter the waters where baby sea horses and otter families once played. Residents have complained for years about routinely finding diapers, condoms and other trash in the muck.
Silt that has flowed from upstream and collected on the creek floor makes navigation of the creek virtually impossible at low tide.
"It is the saddest thing to sit out there at night and watch people dragging kayaks and canoes up and down the creek," Annie Chewcaskie, whose Buena Vista Drive N home backs up to the waterway, told city commissioners during a workshop this week.
Relief may be on the way.
The Dunedin City Commission will decide in coming weeks whether to set aside $100,000 in next year's budget to hire a consultant to study the practicality, logistics and estimated costs of dredging Cedar Creek and Lake Sperry. Both water bodies are located between San Christopher Drive and Michigan Boulevard, and the creek empties into the Intracoastal Waterway just south of Michigan.
Residents say Lake Sperry's depth has dwindled from about 18 feet in the 1970s to no more than 5 feet.
Years ago, the city put money for dredging both bodies of water in the six-year capital improvement budget. City staffers say Dunedin could save dollars by studying both water bodies at the same time.
If commissioners decide to move forward, the creek and lake would likely be dredged in 2014.
Public Works director Doug Hutchens said dredging requires permits from multiple agencies including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The consultant, he said, would improve Dunedin's chances of obtaining permit approval by:
•Conducting an underwater survey to determine how deep, how wide and how far upstream the city should excavate. The data would be used to calculate dredging costs, which are based on the cubic yards removed. Dunedin already has about $563,000 each set aside to dredge Lake Sperry and Cedar Creek on the western side of Alt. U.S. 19 only.
•Obtaining soil samples to determine the best dredging and disposal methods. The city staff anticipates the recommendations would differ for Cedar Creek, which is saltwater, and Lake Sperry, which is freshwater.
•Gathering documents and photographic proof of Dunedin's dredging history in advance of preapplication meetings with the regulatory agencies. The historical information plays a factor in what the agencies allow when granting permits.
"We'll let that science dictate not only the depths but the reaches of the excavation," Hutchens said.
Officials estimate that the analysis and permitting process would take at least a year. Based on the results, commissioners would decide whether to hire a dredge team. Dredging would take four to six months.
The proposal is not without controversy.
George Nigro, spokesman for a group of residents who call themselves Citizens for a Better Dunedin, read a statement in which roughly two dozen members called it "unreasonable" for all residents to fund a project that would benefit only a select few who want to make the channel navigable.
They urged the commission to force these private waterfront homeowners to bear the costs of the study and the cleanup alone, especially in light of proposed layoffs and other cuts in next year's city budget.
"There is absolutely no evidence that anything other than Mother Nature has filled in the creek, which was initially widened by a developer," Nigro told the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday. "How often will the city have to pony up to reverse Mother Nature?"
The waterfront residents countered that the waterways are for use by the entire city. Cedar Creek, one resident noted, flows downstream into St. Joseph's Sound, affecting more than 14 homeowners. Another referenced information that past Florida Department of Environmental Protection testing of the creek's muck has detected fecal coliform.
In addition to diminishing property values and lowering the tax base, the debris has taken a toll on wildlife, vegetation and possibly even tourism, residents told commissioners.
"People (headed to and from downtown Dunedin) drive back and forth across that bridge and they look down and they say 'Yuck!' " Chewcaskie said. "It's not about boating. It's about usage and having a beautiful body of water that is suddenly now not beautiful anymore."
Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski responded to Nigro's comments, saying it's only fair that the city "finish the job" and dredge the creek and lake since officials have already invested millions of dollars farther upstream.
All of the projects, she said, attempt to correct stormwater problems created 50 years ago by development for which regulations hadn't yet been invented. She said the scope of the excavation would be based on the scientific analysis, eliminating politics and debate over the navigability issue.
"This is about fixing an ongoing problem. The silt has gone down and down and down. Lake Sperry's issue is the precursor to what happened downstream at Cedar Creek ... and I don't like the fact that we're making it about 14 waterfront homeowners," Bujalski said. "It's just making sure our environment is safe, equitable, the water's clean."
Once the Cedar Creek and Lake Sperry dredging projects are complete, Bujalski said, the city "in my mind" has fulfilled its obligation and future sediment buildup is "a natural occurrence."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.