If the city wants some control over its share of the Hillsborough River, a source of fishing and boating and beauty for the residents, then it's going to have to take stronger steps against water authorities than it has in the past.
That was the recommendation by Andy Ross, chairman of the Temple Terrace River Watch Task Force, who appeared before the City Council last week.
Otherwise, Ross said, those authorities will continue to tap into the middle river for Tampa's drinking water without setting a minimum river level.
Ross asked the council to look into hiring a scientist to study the 7-mile stretch of the river that runs through the city to determine whether low levels — low enough to walk across in some years — harm the ecosystem.
As a model for success, Ross mentioned the efforts of the Friends of the River, a citizens group that was able to get the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, to set a minimum flow for the section of river that runs through Tampa.
"This is where Friends of the River, the lower river, were 10 to 12 years ago,'' said Ross, who is also deputy chief of police at Tampa International Airport. "They had a bunch of science behind them, and they still had to file a suit to get Swiftmud to the table. We don't have any science right now.''
In response, the council directed city manager Gerald Seeber to look into the feasibility of hiring an environmental scientist to do the study, which could possibly serve as ammunition for a potential lawsuit.
Doug Leeper, chief advisory environmental scientist with Swiftmud, said the agency's staff would take such a study into consideration, but he could not predict what action it would take.
Chances are this fight could become much bigger than the battle between Swiftmud and Tampa's Friends of the River. Swiftmud and the city of Tampa have traditionally used the river in Temple Terrace as Tampa's drinking water reservoir, a source that is tapped during drought in order to meet Tampa's daily demand of 80 million gallons.
In a 2012 interview, Sid Flannery, Swiftmud's chief environmental scientist, said that because the reservoir is a source of drinking water for Tampa, the agency determined that it was "not necessary or appropriate'' to establish a minimum level.
Leeper said that evaluation was reached after the agency studied the middle river at the request of the Temple Terrace River Watch Task Force in 2008 and determined that it was more appropriate to employ the methodology used to study standing bodies of water rather than rivers. Veronica Craw, the agency's environmental section manager, pointed out that alterations to that part of the river over the previous century made it operate more like a lake.
"We don't concur with that definition,'' Ross said in an interview. "That's a river.''
Mayor Frank Chillura, who was active on the river watch task force before becoming mayor, said the middle river has always been treated like the "stepchild'' by Swiftmud.
Council member Grant Rimbey said "we have to follow Friends of the River because those are the only guys around here that have had any success.''
Rimbey said protest is "not going to make any difference until we bring in an expert with the potential of a lawsuit and deal with Swiftmud head on.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.