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Kings Bay silt vacuuming project will be put on hold

When Citrus County's Tourist Development Council recommended last week that $35,000 be spent to vacuum silt out of Kings Bay, the members worried that the cloudy water could ruin tourism. The International Manatee Interaction Society, a group led by Crystal River dive-shop owner Sam Lyons, told the council that divers spend $10-million a year at local businesses.

If they can't see under the water, he said, they'll go somewhere else, where the water is clearer.

But although silt vacuuming may seem like a dream solution to a nightmare problem, the money tentatively set aside for the project may never get used.

The reasons are as complex as the pollution problems facing Kings Bay.

Before any silt is vacuumed, several state and federal agencies must give their permission.

And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that owns much of the area to be cleaned, has clashed in the past with Lyons over manatee protection issues and was the last to find out about the plans.

The agency learned of the request more than two months after Lyon's group first asked the county for money.

In an April 30 letter to Lyons, Wildlife Service refuge manager Cameron Shaw said the causes of the Kings Bay water quality problems need more study.

Shaw also wrote that he could not predict his agency's response to the silt vacuuming idea because no one can say whether it will do more harm than good.

"Perhaps, if I had been involved from the inception of this effort, I would be better-prepared to do so," Shaw said.

Officials from other agencies that would have to issue permits for the project said the vacuuming would attack only a symptom of the bay's declining water quality.

At best, they said, the project would provide temporary relief.

Helen Spivey, president of Concerned Citizens of Citrus County, said she thinks the silt removal will accomplish very little.

But she said she hadn't fought Lyons' proposal because she found it ridiculous that anyone would take the proposal seriously when Lyons waited until the last minute to contact the agency that owns so much of the bay.

"Sam knew full well that this property belonged to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because his family sold it to them," Spivey said.

"I just thought it was funny, at first. But this is not funny when they take money that could have gone to something else."

Seventeen other groups had asked the Tourist Development Council for some of the $125,000 in tourist tax revenues that were available.

If the County Commission approves the recommended allocations, the $35,000 chunk would be the largest for a single project.

Some, but not all, of that money will be used to apply for permits, Lyons said.

The estimated cost of the project, not including permits, is $49,000.

"I hope that they recognize how necessary (the project) is, and it certainly goes beyond economics," Lyons said.

"Certainly there is the potential for this silt endangering the manatees if the silt contains heavy metals and they ingest it.

"I find it hard to believe that the agencies would be reluctant to restore habitat.

"If they are going to say, "No, we're not going to remove the silt,' and the silt is harmful to manatees, then certainly they're not living up to their responsibilities. I intend to press them on that.

"That's public property. It belongs to all of us so they need to get involved in cleaning up their property."

But one federal official said it's not as easy as that.

"There's a lot of permits they're going to have to have, from three or four Florida agencies alone," said Jim Matthews, associate manager for the Florida refuges for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Matthews said that before his agency could grant a permit, it would have to be sure that the project would work and that "it would have to be compatible with the purpose for which the refuge was established."

Other agencies have similar concerns.

"I understand the problems that siltation can cause to the recreational users of Kings Bay," State Department of Environmental Regulation Secretary Carol Browner wrote to Lyons.

"However, there are other problems affecting water quality in the Crystal River/Kings Bay system, and technical questions must be answered to determine the effectiveness" of vacuuming.

Tom Gardner, executive director of the Florida Department of Natural Resources wrote, "We cannot predict if hydraulic dredging of spring vents would be successful for a short-term improvement of the degraded conditions in Kings Bay."

Even the engineer in charge of the Surface Water Improvement and Management program, which is involved in an extensive study of the water quality in the bay, acknowledged that any silt removal project would require that many technical questions be answered first.

Citrus economic development director Roy Taylor said that tourist council members read the letters from the agencies and from Lyons and considered that information before voting to support the project.

"It's very clear to me that what is needed in the interim is a summit of agencies," Taylor said.

"Mr. Lyons and those in Crystal River and others who want the springs vacuumed are going to have to get together with these agencies.

"Nothing is going to be done until and unless they get the permits."

"If they're unsuccessful in getting them, then the money is not going to be available to them."