From the windows of the waterfront homes that surround it, Lake Seminole still looks like the serene freshwater lake its designers wanted. But after 70 years of being inundated with storm runoff and pollution, it has become a symbol of Pinellas County's water quality problems.
One of the largest lakes in Pinellas, Lake Seminole was created in the 1940s when county officials damned an estuary off Long Bayou, fully submerging marsh grasses and mangroves, and leaving them there to rot. Decades later, the bottom of the lake is covered in a million cubic yards of muck and has the consistency of chocolate pudding.
Lake Seminole has become "the poster child for bad water quality," said Kelli Levy, who oversees stormwater management for Pinellas.
The 1990s brought repeated attempts to clean up the lake. Plans were drawn up and funding promises were made, and then the muck of bureaucracy, money and inertia began to build.
People fought over in whose backyard all that decomposing grass would be dumped. For reasons that are still unclear, it took three years for the state to approve permits for water treatment plants. And as the county's revenues began to decline, funding was diverted to more urgent projects.
Originally given a 2008 deadline, the Lake Seminole cleanup project is now long overdue. There has been progress, and four of the six water treatment plants have been built, but the dredging that was supposed to be done years ago isn't slated to begin until 2014.
And though the county once estimated the project would cost about $11.1 million, officials now say that, by the time the dredging is done, they will have spent $30 million.
Levy said that Lake Seminole's water is improving, but that welcome news is tempered by the worsening water quality in Lake Tarpon. At 2,500 acres, it is more than three times the size of Lake Seminole.
"We would never be able to afford to dredge Lake Tarpon if that's what it came to, it would be hundreds of millions of dollars," Levy said. "So we've got to prevent this."
Lake Tarpon and Lake Seminole are extreme examples of costly restoration projects in Pinellas, but some commissioners say they are hearing a growing number of complaints about other polluted lakes and creeks. And the County Commission is awakening to the realization that reversing decades of fertilizer runoff and drainage problems is going to be expensive.
At the end of this month, County Administrator Bob LaSala plans to present the commission with a way to cover the costs: a $10.50 per month stormwater utility fee to be paid by people living in the unincorporated areas. Over the course of a year, that would come to $126 per household and bring the county about $19.7 million.
Setting up a stormwater fee would be a change for Pinellas, but not for the rest of Tampa Bay. Hernando approved a stormwater tax in 2003. Pasco instituted a fee in 2007 — it charges the owner of a single-family home or condo $47 a year. Hillsborough County bills homeowners $12 a year for stormwater, a fee its commission is debating whether to increase.
The proposed fee for Pinellas is higher than many of these others, LaSala acknowledged. "It's an evaluation based on the assessment we've made of our stormwater needs in the unincorporated area," he said. "We don't have a lot of land that's capable of absorbing our rainfall and runoff."
Many of the commissioners have already voiced support for a stormwater fee.
"I would think there's a majority to do it," said Commissioner John Morroni. "It's time to pay the piper and we don't have the money in our regular budget for this."
In Pinellas, funding for drainage and flood control projects has come out of the general fund, which is heavily dependent on property taxes, and already stretched thin. The rest comes from the transportation fund, which is shrinking courtesy of the increasingly fruitless gas tax.
In a few years, there may not be enough money in that fund to pave roads, LaSala warned commissioners earlier this month, much less spend $5 million on storm runoff.
Along with deciding how much to charge, commissioners will also have to determine who should pay. Though some view a countywide fee — one that would take the place of the various fees levied by cities — as an impossible goal, others are still holding it out as an option.
"I remain convinced that the stormwater solution must include a countywide consolidated effort," Commissioner Norm Roche wrote in an email.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.