CRYSTAL RIVER — Tampa developer Hal Flowers gazed into the sun-dappled water of Three Sisters Springs on Friday afternoon, a hint of a smile creasing his face as a scarred young manatee glided by.
A year ago, he helped keep the baby sea cow alive after it was ripped open by a boat propeller, an ordeal that he says drives home the importance of preserving not just the endangered species but the pristine springs.
Now, after months of care at the Lowry Park Zoo, Baby Sister and another manatee, Baby Coral, were swimming in the wild again.
"I didn't think she was going to make it," said Flowers as he watched the 680-pound creature. "This is the only place, the only ecosystem, where this can happen."
Flowers, who along with business partners owns the 60 acres around the springs, has plans for a 300-home development on the site.
Simultaneously, however, he has been helping a coalition of environmental groups and government agencies try to raise millions of dollars to acquire the land for public use to preserve it from development.
Those efforts got a big boost this week when the U.S. House appropriated $1.5 million for the project, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers its top acquisition priority in the southeastern United States. The appropriation still needs the approval of the Senate and President Obama.
Any federal dollars will be used with Florida Forever land-acquisition funds, money from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, a $2 million private foundation donation and hundreds of thousands from local governments, tourist development interests and private residents.
If the federal appropriation holds up, the groups — organized under the umbrella of the Friends of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge — would be just $170,000 shy of what they believe they need to match the state funding and assure success.
The exact amount needed to acquire the property is not known because appraisals are still under way. If the appraisals come in higher than expected, the coalition fears it won't have enough money to buy the site, said Crystal River City Manager Andy Houston.
If they come in too low, Flowers and his partners — who bought the property for $10.5 million — may not be willing to sell, he said.
"I'm optimistic and I'm hopeful, but I keep reminding people, we're not there yet," Houston said.
The project benefits the community, manatees and the water quality of the Crystal River, said Lace Blue-McLean, president of the Friends of Chassahowitzka. Three Sisters Springs needs to be acquired for public use, she said, because people around the state have come together to support it.
Flowers is excited about how far the coalition has come but remains wary about the upcoming legislative session. Some advocates fear the Legislature will try to solve the state's budget crisis by raiding allocations such as the one to save Three Sisters Springs.
"I'll be lighting a lot of candles over the next two months," he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.