It's hard to imagine anything could be prettier than the Chassahowitzka River was on a sunny, mild morning last week.
Mullet darted through eel grass. Kingfishers, ospreys and pelicans dove for fish or coasted over the water. The horizon was cabbage palms, blue water and blue sky.
Then Mickey Newberger, 72, had to spoil things by telling me that it used to be much prettier — with more birds, more fish and more water. Lots more water.
"This is an issue of quantity," said Newberger, of Lutz, who has fished the river just north of the Hernando-Citrus county line for 60 years and owned a cabin on it for 25.
That's certainly true of the matter that had led me to join him for a motorboat ride on the Chassahowitzka Thursday. The Southwest Florida Water Management District is setting the river's "minimum flow." That's the least amount of water the river needs. Or, looked at another way, it's the most that can be pumped from the aquifer that feeds the river without causing, as the district's website puts it, "significant harm to water resources or the environment.''
A final vote on this level has been postponed several times, and is now expected to come in February at the earliest, said Marty Kelly, who runs Swiftmud's minimum flow program. But in a report completed in November, district scientists placed the minimum at 11 percent below normal levels.
Newberger is among plenty of residents and property owners — about 25 of whom attended a meeting in Lecanto on Thursday — who think that this is way too low. Because, as the minimum flow program recognizes, you can't separate quantity from quality.
When he was a teenager, even miles down from the river's springhead, Newberger could catch as many bass as the state allowed in a few minutes.
"We'd limit out in no time,'' said Newberger, a retired U.S. Marshal and former member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. "This was one of the best bass fishing areas around."
Now, there's no bass at all in these downstream holes, he said. Recently, barnacles have appeared on his dock about 3 miles downstream from the spring. And, most significantly, the woods up and down stream from his house seem to be dying. He pointed out the dead cedar limbs and the shriveled crowns of the cabbage palms.
The root cause of all of this is the same; less fresh water flowing downstream, allowing more saltwater to come in from the Gulf of Mexico. Taking 11 percent from this river, he said, is like taking 11 percent from an unhealthy person.
"What 11 percent of the body do you want to cut off? How many fingers? How many toes? What part of your head?"
It's worth pointing out that nobody is planning to suck 11 percent of the river's flow immediately. Also, setting minimum flows is good, something environmentalists have pressed the district to do for decades.
As proof of the protection this standard offers, look at the Weeki Wachee River. Swiftmud set a minimum flow 10 percent lower than the historic norm back in 2008. It also determined that pumping of the groundwater that feeds the river had reduced its flow 9 percent. And that pretty much put a stop to further pumping from the river's groundwater basin in southern Hernando.
That's the good news. The bad news is that this will force further pumping to northern Hernando, most of which is squarely in the Chassahowitzka's basin. There's been one major plan for that already, though it's at least temporarily on hold. Developers of the proposed Quarry Preserve, planned to pump more than 2 million gallons per day for its own expected population of 13,000 people and at least 1 million more per day to sell to the county.
But so far, pumping in its basin accounts for less than 1 percent of a reduction in the river's water volume, the report said. And with the slowdown in population growth, district scientists don't expect the flow to be reduced by more than 3 percent due to pumping in the next 20 years.
But there's also this: Nobody really disagrees with Newberger that even without much pumping, the flow has dropped and the river is changing.
You can see this in a chart showing the average monthly discharge in the main channel from 1967 to 2007. Before 1990, this flow had never dipped below 50 cubic feet per second. Since then it has happened regularly, sometimes for months on end. Likewise, the discharge regularly topped 80 cubic feet per second in the early and mid-1980s, and hasn't done so since.
Either we're looking at a few bad decades or a long-term trend that Swiftmud hasn't fully addressed, which I tend to think is the case. Also, Swiftmud's Kelly said, sea water levels have risen about 6 inches since 1930. With climate change, this trend is also likely to continue.
More pumping, then, will just accelerate what people on the river have been seeing now for a while: More dead trees and fewer fish and birds; less eel grass and less fresh, clean water.