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In Hernando County, a river is dying, but it doesn't have to

As if it weren't obvious from the mats of gray-green algae covering the Weeki Wachee River's once-sugary white bed, the state has made it official:

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the river is classified as "impaired."

Here's some other stuff that's obvious: The Weeki Wachee is the marquee natural resource and attraction in Hernando County. We need to protect it. The first step in doing so should be passing an ordinance limiting fertilizer use. And the county needs to get busy and do this as soon possible and make the law as tough as possible.

The "impaired" designation isn't new. It showed up in a 2009 state Department of Environmental Protection report that cited elevated levels of nitrogen.

This is what feeds the snakelike strands of algae that look bad when they're growing and worse when they start to decay. That's also when they promote blooms of algae that consume dissolved oxygen that fish and all other aquatic animals need to live.

I feel bad that news of the river's impairment slipped my notice, but a little better because it also escaped the attention of a lot of knowledgeable environmentalists and county workers.

It came up because one of these county workers, planner Pat McNeese, was asked to follow up when the County Commission made an earlier decision to not protect the river.

That was in May, when it voted to opt out of a state requirement for the inspection of septic tanks close to major springs such at the Weeki Wachee.

In a token show of concern, commissioners then asked county staffers to look into the cause of the high — and steadily growing — nitrogen levels in the spring-fed river.

That assignment went to McNeese, who on Tuesday is set to tell the commission that nitrogen from organic sources may be part of the problem, but that a much bigger part is nitrogen from lawn fertilizer that seeps into the aquifer.

So, now we come to the fertilizer ordinance: State law requires the ordinance in counties with impaired bodies of water.

McNeese's recommendation will be that passing one can wait awhile. The county has to renew a stormwater runoff permit next year and hire a consultant to do so. It makes sense for the consultant to check into a fertilizer ordinance, she said.

Maybe. But it makes a lot more sense to do it now. And it makes sense to pass something far more strict than the nearly meaningless model law that state lawmakers approved at the urging of the turf grass industry.

"It's super wimpy," said Cris Costello, who monitors this issue statewide for Sierra Club Florida.

Costello said there's nothing stopping the county from banning applications of fertilizer during the rainy season or near bodies of water, or from demanding that homeowners use certain types of fertilizer, such as slow-release varieties that are less likely to end up in our groundwater.

And the county does not need a consultant to come up with an ordinance. It could easily use an ordinance from the 48 other cities and counties that have already passed "strong" ones, Costello said.

You'll hear complaints from lawn services, whose business might be harmed, but — I bet — not crippled. Fertilizer makers and landscaping companies are adapting to these new rules all over the United States.

And let's compare any financial hit they might take to the harm that further degradation of the river will do to home values and tourism.

Nobody ever sold a house or a hotel stay using the word "impaired."

• • •

There's a good reason I was anti-Twitter.

A couple of years ago, I put one of these little notes on the bottom of a column to announce that I planned to start tweeting regularly and, in response, attracted precisely one follower.

I tweeted that fact and nothing again, ever. Twitter was an empty fad, I was sure, the pet rock of the digital age.

It's still around, of course, and the social media gurus at this paper say it's actually the best way for columnists to attract more online readers.

So, I plan to give it another try. Want to find out which local charity just got a sizable donation from Jon Bon Jovi? Want to know where to pick the sweetest, plumpest muscadine grapes in the county, or check out tidbits about the elections? Go to Twitter.com/@ddewitttimes.

More than one of you, please.

In Hernando County, a river is dying, but it doesn't have to 08/11/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 11, 2012 4:40pm]
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