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Wetlands project may ruin canals

Published May 4, 1996|Updated Sep. 16, 2005

Jeff Dilly gulps chilled water, reclines in the back of his canoe, closes his eyes and savors the breeze.

Since 1992, Dilly has retreated to this tranquil spot not far from his home in Eagle Island Estates in Land O'Lakes.

In the canal, he can fish for bass and bream. On higher ground, he can feed apples to deer and frighten the occasional wild turkey.

"I love it out here," said Dilly, 40, a print shop worker and owner of a local video store. "It's like you're in the middle of nowhere, but home's just around the corner."

But this pocket of tranquility in growing central Pasco County may be destroyed in the name of conservation.

Twenty miles away, the state Department of Transportation plans to widen Interstate 4 west of Tampa. In the process, DOT expects to destroy 50 acres of wetlands, mostly roadside ditches. State law requires that whenever wetlands are destroyed, new wetlands must be created elsewhere or existing wetlands enhanced. Government regulators call that "mitigation."

It would cost Florida millions of dollars to mitigate near the project. So instead, DOT officials have turned their sights to 487 acres near Eagle Island Estates.

The law allows anyone who destroys a wetland for construction to mitigate within the same drainage basin.

Although I-4 and Eagle Island Estates are miles apart, they share the Hillsborough River Basin.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, already owns the acreage near Eagle Island Estates. That means more mileage from taxpayers' dollars, DOT officials say.

It will cost about $3-million to mitigate on the state's property, rather than an estimated $12-million closer to I-4.

The serene setting Dilly enjoys, the one he wants to protect from human tampering, actually is the product of more drastic interference.

In the mid-1970s, an era before growth-management and wetland protection laws, developer DeCarr Covington dredged canals 15 to 20 feet deep and created uplands for a subdivision that never materialized.

State officials say their efforts would help repair the damage that was done.

Some Eagle Island residents, Dilly among them, argue that mankind can't do a better job than Mother Nature.

"The land has taken care of itself," Dilly said. "They're going to flatten a system that's already here, that already works, to create another that they don't know for sure will work."

Last Saturday, a Times reporter joined Dilly, neighbors Gail Colburn and Kevin Little, and Pasco County Commissioner Pat Mulieri on a canoe trip through the property.

The land seemed to have recovered from the devastation and adapted.

A banana spider strode the murky surface of the canal until a fish snapped it down with a splash.

Frog eggs, clustered like white grapes, adorned cattail stalks.

Somewhere beyond the cattails, an alligator grunted.

"Life goes on," said Little, 36, who works at the Bealls department store in Zephyrhills.

Mulieri, perched on a small lawn chair between paddlers Dilly and Colburn, seemed astonished.

"It's just so beautiful out here," Mulieri said. "I can't see why they want to mess with this. I thought I was going to see this little ditch. I never expected to see this beautiful wide expanse of water.

"It's like going back in time."

Minutes later, the canoeists stood on dry land, on a grassy prairie that DOT plans to carve with backhoes and dump trucks.

Colburn, 42, runs the thrift store at the Pasco Food Bank and a few years ago led the battle against the Bi-County Expressway. She calls the area "a little Eden."

"This place has had 20 years to settle and get its own ecosphere," she said. "DOT may do irreparable damage here, and then what will the wildlife do? I can't imagine them doing all that and not causing mass destruction."

Mulieri wondered, "If it's not broken, why fix it?"

The state wants to dig about 5 feet of dirt from 60 acres of the evolved upland and dump it into the canals.

Bill Pearce, environmental permits coordinator for the DOT Tampa office, doesn't call that filling the canals.

"It's raising the bottom," he said.

And DOT environmental specialist Mark Brown said that should help, not hurt, life in the canals.

"Anything deeper than 6 or 7 feet doesn't support much growth," Brown said. "You want a shelf to allow for growth."

The DOT wants to use dikes and sandbags to reroute water through a historical wetland.

It intends to save desirable plants, but remove nuisance plants, such as cattails, which Brown said deplete oxygen from the water.

"We're going to try to maintain it in its current condition as much as possible," Pearce said. "I know some people don't want to change it at all. I know it may be a little traumatic. But, at times, you have to look at the bigger philosophical picture.

"This should be a benefit for the area."

Ralph Moon agrees. Moon, 45, works for HSA Environmental Services in Tampa and serves on the board of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of South Florida.

"It's unlikely if some further modification that DOT is planning will make it worse," he said. "There may be short-term effects, but there probably won't be any wild changes to the dissatisfaction of the neighbors."

Residents who oppose the mitigation project can fight it, Pearce said. The DOT needs an environmental resource permit from Swiftmud, which Pearce expects to seek this fall. Opponents can challenge the permit.