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The push to clean up Weeki Wachee Spring comes at a high cost

WEEKI WACHEE

Every Sunday and Thursday morning, a squad of volunteer divers descends into Weeki Wachee Spring to "scrunge" its lime rock basin, working like wet-suited gardeners to pull up black-green strands of lyngbya algae.

And every time they return, more algae has appeared, one of the divers, Bill Patty, 71, said last week as he stripped off his suit.

"We'll never run out of work."

In fact, the hope is that they will eventually run out of work.

The state has launched an ambitious cleanup plan pushed forward by a 2016 springs protection bill that was co-sponsored by state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.

Among other measures, the bill requires the state to produce so-called basin management action plans for all of the state's landmark springs by July 1, 2018.

The department already has created a draft that aims to eliminate new contamination of nitrogen — the nutrient that feeds the spring-choking algae — from Weeki Wachee in 20 years.

Though the officials and environmentalists interviewed all approve of the goal, many of them doubt the state has the resolve to enforce the measure.

Even more questionable is whether residents will be willing to pay for the whopping cost of part of the plan — the estimated $691 million needed to run sewer lines to the more than 30,000 homes in southwestern Hernando County that now depend on septic tanks.

"That's beyond sticker shock," said County Administrator Len Sossamon.

"What's the option? Ask the taxpayers to approve us selling $700 million worth of bonds so we can give you a new sewer system and, by the way, charge you X amount on your monthly sewer bill? Will that pass? I don't think so."

The cost estimate was released in a presentation to the County Commission last month by Hernando environmental services director Gordon Onderdonk, who also explained that the septic-to-sewer conversion is only one part of the draft of the state Department of Environmental Protection's basin management plan.

It was long believed that almost all of Weeki Wachee's nitrogen contamination, which began climbing rapidly after the opening of Spring Hill 50 years ago, was derived from chemical fertilizers applied to lawns, golf courses and hay fields.

Though those are still significant sources — farm and urban fertilizer are to blame for a total of 37 percent of the nitrogen load — more sophisticated testing has revealed that 30 percent comes from septic tanks.

And though Weeki Wachee Spring's groundwater basin spreads southeast well into Pasco County, most of the septic tanks — 32,432 of them — are in southwestern Hernando County. And many are in the Deltona Corp.'s original Spring Hill development.

Onderdonk recommended that the county start by connecting to sewer lines the septic tanks in areas with dense clusters of tanks closest to the spring, where sewage contamination will sift through the soil to reach the spring in five to 10 years, compared to as much as 40 years in outlying areas.

Fitting these areas, just south of State Road 50 and east of U.S. 19, would also make the initial price more reasonable — a total of about $48 million for 2,200 septic tanks, according to Onderdonk's presentation.

The commission, led by Steve Champion, asked that the county investigate whether the cost of upgrading septic tanks may cost less than connecting them to sewer lines.

That would be worth exploring, said Jay Sartor, owner of Cliff's Septic Services Inc. of Brooksville. The sandy soil in Spring Hill is so permeable that it absorbs little of the nitrogen. That can be remedied, he said, by digging out soil beneath tanks and adding silt or clay to slow the flow, as well as loam to absorb more nutrients.

Sartor also said that some contamination could be eliminated by regular inspections and maintenance.

"Part of the problem we have with septic tanks is that a lot of them are not properly maintained," he said.

A previous state law required counties with large spring sheds to either mandate regular septic inspections or pass ordinances regulating the use of fertilizers. The Hernando commission rejected the inspections as too large of a financial burden on homeowners and, in 2013, passed a fertilizer ordinance that was widely panned as toothless.

So may be the basin management plans, said environmental advocates.

"That bill was nowhere near as strong as we wanted and as springs advocates wanted it to be," said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida.

But it "does have some teeth in it," Draper said, and the DEP secretary does "technically" have the right to require local governments to meet the plans' aims.

Robert Knight, president of the Florida Springs Institute, said he is more hopeful this will happen because of the appointment of a new, more proactive DEP secretary, Noah Valenstein.

But the DEP's recent record on environmental enforcement in general is unimpressive, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis, which showed that the number of new enforcement actions was down to 307 in 2016 compared to 1,587 in 2010, and the total value of penalties imposed had plummeted by about 75 percent.

And there has been little appetite to place large financial burdens on residents in groundwater basins where management plans are already in place, Knight said.

The goals for reducing contamination are ambitious, he said. "They are big numbers, but they will essentially never be achieved. … It's so expensive to achieve this on the downstream end."

Instead, he said, the first priority should be controlling new septic tank construction.

Both Draper and Simpson said that working cooperatively will produce more results than waiting for the DEP to impose penalties.

The county should, as Onderdonk suggested, start with smaller projects and seek funds to help pay for them, they said.

The amount the state has committed to these projects, $65 million per year, is a tiny fraction of the costs of implementing the management plans. But Hernando will get a larger share if it shows it is serious about cleaning up the Weeki Wachee, especially considering Simpson's increasing influence. If re-elected in 2018, he is on track to serve as Senate president in 2021 and 2022.

He said he will use his power to seek more funding for the Weeki Wachee, which is one of his priorities as a legislator.

"We have to clean up our springs," Simpson said, "and we have to be prepared to do what we have to do to accomplish that."

One factor working in his favor, he said, is the increased public concern for the springs, which is spread by activists such as Rita King, 71.

The former mermaid watched the divers work from the underwater theater at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park last week. She regularly gives presentations advocating for the cleanup of Weeki Wachee, she said, partly because she remembers the way it looked when she performed there in the early 1960s.

The limestone walls and pockets of sand were bright white, she said. Instead of algae, they supported large swaths of gracefully waving eelgrass.

"The water is clear now, but not as clear as it was," she said. "It was beautiful."

The push to clean up Weeki Wachee Spring comes at a high cost 06/07/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 7, 2017 5:05pm]
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