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Citrus pushing for sinkhole plan

When a sinkhole was discovered in the Morrison Pool of Little Lake Henderson, government's response was acceptable _ eventually.

Citrus county staffers evaluated the problem. The local water district kicked in money and helped secure permits for repair work.

By the end of this week, workers should finish fixing a ruptured berm and stop the thirsty sinkhole, which reportedly had sucked up to 1.7-million gallons a day.

"The problem is that, because there was no pre-established plan, what should have taken a week or less actually took months," Citrus County Commission Chairman Frank Schiraldi pointed out Monday.

Schiraldi and his fellow commissioners appeared before water district leaders Monday to make sure future responses don't move at such a snail's pace.

The county proposed a plan to handle water-related problems that demand immediate attention. It calls for the Southwest Florida Water Management District to work with the county.

"To accomplish this goal, a new attitude must emerge," Schiraldi told Swiftmud's governing board. "A new spirit of cooperation and eagerness to serve must replace what is now viewed by the citizens as a bureaucracy out of control and out of touch with the people it is supposed to serve."

Swiftmud's staff is working on a plan as well, presenting a preliminary flow chart that outlines how the agency would handle sinkholes that it feels obliged to fix.

Swiftmud's staff will continue to revise its plan in the coming weeks; the issue is scheduled for discussion at the board's next meeting.

The governing board also promised to have its staff work further with Citrus' staff to foster cooperation and communication.

Swiftmud's executive director, Peter Hubbell, hastened to add that the agency won't fix every sinkhole.

But the agency's willingness to help with Little Lake Henderson _ though too late in some minds _ certainly has pleased Citrus leaders.

County commissioners, together with the people they represent, had become visibly frustrated with the local water regulators. Although it knew about the sinkhole last year, only on Jan. 28 did Swiftmud acknowledge that it was at least partially responsible for correcting the problem.

While Swiftmud dragged its feet, some local residents _ Sheriff Charles Dean, most notably _ took matters into their own hands, finishing some crude repairs to stop the sinkhole from draining the lake.

Once the agency signed on, the process went smoothly. Two weeks ago, County Administrator Tony Shoemaker received Swiftmud's promise to pay up to half of the $9,000 or so price tag for repairing the sinkhole.

Swiftmud also helped secure permits for the work, Shoemaker said.

Residents attending the governing board meeting cheered member Margaret W. Sistrunk, who said if the state owns lake water and the land that sits below lakes, then the state should be at least partially responsible for sinkholes in those areas.

The crowd saved its boos for Hubbell, who noted the effect of a five-year drought on the lowering lake levels.

While he had the governing board's ear Monday, Schiraldi posed a few questions that Citrus residents want answered:

Will federal rules concerning the drawdown of lakes be changed to reflect current conditions?

Does Swiftmud plan to restore the Tsala Apopka chain of lakes, or will it allow nature to take its course? Who will fund the plans? Will they be presented to the public?

What action is planned for the drainage channel existing within Potts Preserve? When will it start?

Will Swiftmud give the public periodic reports on the quality of surface and ground water?

As agencies develop other water sources for Tampa Bay, will Swiftmud provide clear and timely information to the public, so residents can have a voice?

Does Swiftmud have a long-term correction plan for side effects of chemical weed control?

The governing board pledged to provide answers.