HERNANDO BEACH — With metal grinding and gears whirling, the machinery on the hulking barge roared to life this week and began biting into the mounds of rocks lying dangerously close to the water's surface.
In pass after pass, workers dragged boulders up to storage bins. They will be dispersed later on the nearby spoils islands.
In any other waterfront community, these mundane mainenance tasks might get scant notice.
Not in Hernando Beach.
The activity proves that one of the most-anticipated public works projects ever in Hernando County — the long-overdue channel-dredging — had finally begun.
The rock hauling, which is focused on the center section of the project in the area where the county is technically "maintenance dredging'' began on Monday, said assistant county engineer Gregg Sutton.
That portion of the project, the removal and hauling away of 12,000 to 15,000 cubic yards of rocks, must be completed before the dredging barge can be moved in and begin sucking out between 50,000 and 60,000 cubic yards of sand that is clogging the channel.
The sand dredging is a couple of weeks behind schedule, Sutton said, but he doesn't anticipate it will jeopardize the timing on the project completion.
The funds for the project, which is expected to fall below the original $9 million estimate, must be spent by summer.
The last of the needed permits is still hung up, as Hernando County is still working with officials from the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation to complete negotiations of a sea grass mitigation plan.
"We're awaiting their review,'' Sutton said.
The dredging project will ultimately lengthen, straighten, deepen and widen the Hernando Beach Channel. It has been in the works for more than a decade as environmental, financial and legal challenges tied it up.
Sutton said the Hernando Beach community has been anxious to see the project happen after so many years of concerns about the deterioration of safety conditions in the channel.
"We've not heard any issues and the people have been supportive,'' Sutton said. "People are happy to see the progress and that we're under way.''
Among those pleased at the project's long-awaited beginning is County Commission Chairman Dave Russell. "We've made an entry into the annals of Hernando County history,'' he said. "Happy day.''
He's so excited, he has asked county officials to have one big chunk of the dredged rock delivered to the Hernando County Commission Chambers. Area residents should see what all their eager participation and tax dollars have brought to the community, Russell said.
"I want it on public display. Lord knows we've spent enough money on it,'' he said. "It'll be our moon-rock. It's almost are rare.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.