GULFPORT — A proposal to dredge part of Clam Bayou Nature Park has raised questions about the environmental future of the wildlife estuary and divided this close-knit coastal community.
Proponents argue that the dredging is necessary to remove stormwater runoff that has filtered into the bayou in recent years, creating a murky waterway crammed with soda cans, shopping carts, plastic bags, car tires and other objects.
But opponents say the dredging will only disturb the fiddler crabs, clams, wading birds, dolphins and manatees that call Clam Bayou home. As of Friday afternoon, more than 260 people had signed a petition opposing the dredging.
"There is no way they can do that dredging without harming the ecosystem that is there," said Gulfport resident Jennifer Salmon.
In May, the City Council voted 4-1 to approve the dredging. The resolution was mostly symbolic because the city cannot take action without approval from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, which opposes the dredging, said City Manager Tom Brobeil.
It's unclear how much sediment would have to be removed, Brobeil said.
Swiftmud's Pinellas-Anclote River Basin Board will discuss the proposal Wednesday at Clearwater City Hall.
In the past, Swiftmud has opposed dredging at Clam Bayou because the department feared it would disturb the estuary's wildlife, said Jennette Seachrist, a water improvement program manager.
Clam Bayou is south of 29th Avenue S on Miriam Street. Part of the estuary sits in St. Petersburg, but the bulk of the bayou, or about 10 acres, lies in Gulfport.
Swiftmud plans to dredge some wetlands along the border of the bayou to create three large retention ponds that would collect stormwater waste.
"What we are saying is clean up what's already there before you go dig a new hole," said Gulfport City Council member Bob Worthington.
Mayor Mike Yakes said the dredging would actually make the estuary safer for wildlife because it would remove pounds of pollution and waste.
"We have all these annual cleanups," he said. "If they approve this, we are all going to be better off. We can quit fighting and quit picking up the trash and instead get together and enjoy Clam Bayou."
But the council's lone dissenting voice said the resolution is premature.
"I think the concerns that citizens have about Clam Bayou will be addressed once the retention ponds are completed," said Vice Mayor Michele King. "Also, dredging does not save the bayou. It basically kills the bayou.
"The mangroves will be gone, the fish will be gone. So you basically don't have an estuary anymore. You have a boat basin."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.