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County seeks public support to clean water // PLANNING FOR GROWTH

Citrus County's water still flows through our rivers, up through our wells and out through our faucets.

But is it as clean as it used to be?

Many political and community leaders say no.

They say sewage leaks from worn-out septic systems and runoff from roads and parking lots have darkened water bodies such as Kings Bay and filtered down into some drinking water reserves.

In order to fight water pollution, county commissioners have proposed about $60-million worth of sewer and water projects.

To help pay for those projects, commissioners are looking to the public. Funding options include a sales tax increase _ of .5 percent or 1 percent _ or a franchise fee assessed on utility companies that use county-owned property for transmission lines.

Money raised would go specifically toward multimillion-dollar projects such as the extension of central water and sewer lines and the construction of a sewage treatment plant to serve the county's southwestern region.

These projects eventually will involve much more than the digging of ditches and the laying of pipes. They also may quicken development of land that has been set aside for future homes and may make Citrus a more attractive location for some large businesses.

According to the county's comprehensive plan _ a document designed to manage the area's growth _ more than 21 percent of Citrus' land area is undeveloped property that has been approved for development.

Planners have channeled much of the expected future development away from sensitive wetland areas and toward the county's central ridge region. In that area alone, nearly 68,000 acres are slated for development.

The county's coastal and lakes regions also have some land available for development, but Citrus officials describe those areas as small pockets that will have homes regardless of whether they are served by central water and sewer systems.

"The growth is going to come, so you might as well plan for it," Acting County Administrator Gary Kuhl said last week.

Commissioners couldn't agree more.

Commissioner Roger Batchelor, a Crystal River charter boat captain, said he thinks the county should have acted 10 years ago.

"I'm out there on the bay and the river, and I know that it has deteriorated tremendously over the past 20 years," he said.

Skippers used to be able to see the sandy bottom, Batchelor said. "Today, all you're looking at is a murky, muddy mess."

By running central sewer lines into coastal areas now served by septic tanks and small leaky plants, Batchelor said the county should be able to clean up the mess.

"If not, we're going to have some severe water problems in this area," he said.

Commissioner Vicki Phillips said coastal sewage is not the only thing contributing to spoiled water bodies. In her high-and-dry district in the central ridge area, Phillips said pollutants still make their way into the water.

Contaminants flow with runoff to lakes in the east and to rivers in the west, she said. To capture stormwater before it reaches water bodies, commissioners have proposed drainage improvement projects in all regions of the county.

Phillips said she thinks the expansion of central sewer and water lines in the central ridge area also will safeguard underground water supplies that may be vulnerable to pollutants that seep through the ground.

As to whether those improvements might mean quicker development of the central ridge, Phillips said: "I don't think the infrastructure is going to cause any more growth than would occur with time."

Commission Chairman Jim Fowler agreed: "I know that there is a concern by some so-called environmentalists that a sewer system is going to bring growth. I think the growth in inevitable. You're not going to deny people up north their retirement home in Florida."

Putting in sewer systems now will safeguard the environment in the future, Fowler said. County water systems also will allow people in areas with poor water quality to drink from the tap again, he said.

While private owners of wells are not required to test their water for bacteria or chemical contaminants, public wells must be monitored regularly.

Central water and sewer systems also would bring other changes, according to Gary Maidhof, the county's environmental planner. For one, he said, homeowners' insurance rates may drop in some areas where fire hydrants are installed, allowing fires to be extinguished more quickly.

Maidhof said commercially zoned areas along major roads _ such as State Road 44, U.S. 41 and State Road 200 _ also would begin to attract large chain-owned restaurants and stores that generally seek areas with central sewage in order to support the large numbers of customers that use their facilities.

"It widens the net of potential businesses to locate in Citrus County," Maidhof said.

Charlie Bradley, an environmental manager with the county health department, agreed that central water and sewer systems make the area more attractive to large businesses.

"Once you have central water and sewer, you encourage growth," he said.

That may be so, Commissioner Brad Thorpe said. But the alternative _ doing nothing _ will harm the environment more, Thorpe said.

The decision facing Citrus residents reminds Thorpe of one that his parents faced when he was growing up in St. Petersburg during the 1950s.

At the time, Thorpe said his family lived on an unpaved road. He remembers his parents talking about a property-tax assessment meant to pave the road and add central sewer to the area. The cost, as he and his mother remember it, was $1,400, a considerable sum when their lot cost little more than $600.

But, he said, "they realized they had to do it" and paid off the amount over time. "It's not an issue that's really new to developing communities," Thorpe said.

Commissioners have broken down the list of projects they say are necessary into those that are "do-able" right away and those that may take a longer time.

The immediately possible list includes projects such as reaching an interlocal agreement with Crystal River officials to run water and sewer lines outside city limits and expanding Inverness water lines to Gospel Island Road, Turner Camp Road and State Road 44 E.

Other projects that may require more time and money include extending sewer pipes westward on Fort Island Trail and building a wastewater treatment plant near Homosassa.

To facilitate work on some of the larger projects, commissioners are considering privatizing portions of the county's growing utility network.

Thorpe and Kuhl met Friday with a representative from United Water Florida, a company that has offered to design, build, finance or operate the planned southwestern regional wastewater plant or other proposed systems. Kuhl said several other companies also have expressed interest.

Commissioners say they have been talking about cleaning up the county's water for years. Now, finally, they say the movement has momentum.

On Tuesday, they will take their case before the public, listening for suggestions on ways to accomplish the list of projects and how to fund them. The topic of whether the sewer and water projects are needed likely will be kept out of the realm of discussion.

Public workshop

County commissioners have scheduled a public workshop to discuss proposed water/sewer projects and funding methods at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Curtis Peterson Auditorium in Lecanto. The auditorium is in the Roger Weaver Educational Complex, at 3820 W Educational Path, off County Road 491.

Water quality projects outlined

The Citrus County Water Quality Task Force has identified the following projects to be addressed in four regions of the county:

1 LAKES REGION

(eastern Citrus County, from Hernando through Floral City, including three pools of Tsala Apopka chain and Withlacoochee River)

+ Expand service within boundaries of Inverness interlocal agreement. Cost: $7-million

+ Extend water and sewer service to the Hernando area. Cost $1-million

+ Floral City drainage improvements. Cost $4-million

2 CENTRAL RIDGE

(west of U.S. 41 to east side of U.S. 19)

+ Expand central water service. Cost: $6-million

+ Expand sewer service and develop reuse water projects. Cost $2-million

+ Beverly Hills drainage improvements. Cost $5-million

3 CRYSTAL RIVER COASTAL ZONE

(coastal area from Ozello north to Withlacoochee River)

+ Interlocal sewer and water agreement with Crystal River. Cost: $11-million

+ Stormwater retro-fitting pursuant to SWIM plan. Cost: To be determined

4 HOMOSASSA / CHASSAHOWITZKA COASTAL ZONE

(coastal area from Ozello to Hernando County border)

+ Construction of regional wastewater facility. Cost: $13.5-milion

Source: Citrus County Water Quality Task Force

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