HERNANDO BEACH — For months, beach residents Frank Santo and Steve Barton had been doing their research, talking to experts and trying to persuade the county to help.
Their problem was that a high spot blocked the access channel that hugs the Hernando Beach shoreline south of the main channel. Even with the dredge of this main channel finished, the spot blocked access at low tide to anyone with a large boat in most of Hernando Beach, and dredging a clear path could have cost more than $100,000.
It turns out that there is a simple solution that wasn't obvious when the men started on their mission.
Even as the county's main channel dredging operation was winding down, they tried to persuade the county to also dredge the access channel before all the equipment was gone.
The county said no, but that didn't stop Santo and Barton from pushing for the community to get the job done despite the cost.
They talked to the Hernando County Port Authority, the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. They talked fund-raising and prepared to bring in a dredging firm to do the job.
But before they did that, Santo and Barton wanted to know the exact lay of the land underneath the channel.
They donned wet suits and went into the water, spending hours marking depths. And what they found changed everything.
As it turns out, there is a deep spot in the access channel, but it hugs the shore side. About 30 feet across at its narrowest point, it is just under 5 feet deep at low water. The channel was confirmed days later by a member of the county waterways department using an accurate depth-finder.
Sticking to the middle of the channel, as mariners traditionally do, could land some boaters in an area just 31/2 feet deep.
Finding the deep spot and now finding a way to mark it so that boaters can traverse it will mean opening the access channel to nearly all the boaters who would want to get to the main channel and out into the gulf, Santo said.
All it took was getting a little bit wet.
"We wanted to make sure that we knew exactly what we were going to tell the dredge guys when they came,'' he said. "This is low-tech, but it works.''
The deep spot means large boats, which could only get through the passage at high tide, now have a much longer window of opportunity to exit the channel and come back in, Santo said. That can be the difference between an hours-long fishing trip on the gulf or a forced overnight stay on the water waiting for the next high tide.
"It's a huge, huge difference in my ability to use my boat,'' Santo said.
Barton said he has been around Hernando Beach for many years and had always been told to steer clear of the shoreline in the high spot, so he was surprised at the location of the deep area. He said it was a pleasant surprise because the alternative "would have been a two-year project and it would have cost a lot of money.''
Santo said the area and another spot with troublesome ridges to the south in the access channel should probably still be dug out. But that can always happen if the community decides long term to go through with a special benefits unit through the county. In that program, the county would assess a fee to each property owner which would be used to maintain and dredge out obstructions in area canals.
The Port Authority was expected to discuss how to mark the deep section of the channel at Wednesday evening's meeting, said Barton, who is a member of the authority.
"I'm very happy with the outcome,'' Santo said. "I think we hit a home run.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.