I have a news flash about the Hernando Beach boat channel:
It's just a ditch.
That's right. It's nothing more than a shallow, underwater, 3-mile-long divot in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.
And the dredge? Well, for all the hand-wringing, lawsuits and administrative challenges, for all the talk about "dewatering" as though it's the technological equivalent of cold fusion, for all the sky-high bids that make it seem as if contractors are being asked to build another Panama Canal, this is what it amounts to:
Digging this ditch a little deeper, a little wider and, if there is money left over, a little longer. And draining the dirt that's dug up. Nothing more.
Here's another revelation that came to me after I joined one of the tours of the channel that were arranged for county commissioners this week: Boats can get through. There are no land mines or waves crashing on jagged rocks. No Somali pirates.
Yes, Buddy Palmer, a county waterways maintenance worker, had to idle past homeowners' docks at the beginning of our journey Monday morning.
He had to keep a close eye on the depth gauge when we passed through the shallowest stretches. And, certainly, navigating the channel would have been a lot trickier on a busy Saturday afternoon, and if our boat were bigger, and if we had a pilot other than Palmer, who knows the channel like his own driveway and was aware of exactly when he could open up the throttle of the 22-foot-long Boston Whaler's towering Evinrude.
But open it up he did, especially on the return trip. Wind whipped, spray flew and we were back at the dock in no time. And that was during low tide.
Yes, I'm sure that finishing this dredge is not as easy as this brief tour made it seem and that navigating the relevant environmental regulations is far tougher than navigating the channel, even on the worst days. But I'm also sure the dredge is nothing like the monumental task it has been made out to be.
That's one way to look at it, in the rearview mirror, with disgust at the time and money wasted on what should have been a simple project. The other option is to look forward, and from that direction, at least, the plan the County Commission settled on a month ago — to supervise the project itself and get it done by the end of the year — is not quite the Hail Mary it seemed at the time.
"This is a viable project," county transportation services director Susan Goebel said after our tour.
And maybe it is.
So by all means, the commission should go ahead with its plan to award a job to a contractor next week. Not doing so means throwing away the $4.9 million the county has already spent on the project. And because $3.2 million of that came from a state grant, abandoning the dredge also raises the possibility we'll have to pay it back.
But if the county can't get it done in time to take advantage of the remaining $2.8 million of state money, if it can't get the grant's Dec. 31 deadline extended, if the bids show that contractors know they have the county over a barrel, then maybe it's time to put this thing on hold for a while. Wait until tax revenues are up. Explore other ways to pay for it. The world won't come to an end if we do.
Yes, Hernando Beach and the county would be better off if the dredge is done. Boating would be safer, not to mention more enjoyable, and property values would climb.
But it wouldn't hurt commissioners to remember that the dredge will benefit a relatively small percentage of the county's population, that there are much more important issues out there, and that we can't keep spending so much time and money and effort on a glorified ditch.