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Water-level concerns are voiced at meeting

Norman Crossland, a retired biologist, is worried about the river on which he lives, the Weeki Wachee.

Crossland has seen a steady decline in the water levels on the river since he moved there 15 years ago, and the decline can only partly be explained by the generally low rainfall during most of the 1990s, he said. Development and pumping are also culprits.

"Our basic concern is that the overpumping of the groundwater, associated with the rapid population growth and development of Hernando County, may be causing irreversible damage to valuable wildlife habitats" along the Weeki Wachee and other coastal rivers, he wrote in a report on the subject.

Crossland presented his study at a meeting in Brooksville on Monday night of the Springs Coast Ecosystem Management Area.

The area is one of a series that the state Department of Environmental Protection has established across Florida. The general idea is to bring residents and governmental agencies together to look at environmental issues in specific regions.

The Springs Coast areas incorporate the coastal region from the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs north to about the Levy-Citrus county line.

The Springs Coast group has received less public attention than its local counterpart, the Withlacoochee management area. Its monthly meetings have not been particularly well attended. Monday's, for example, drew about 25 people.

And, said former state Rep. Helen Spivey, who represents citizens as a member of the Springs Coast group, only some parts of the coast are represented.

"Most of the people are from Weeki Wachee, and I'm from Crystal River. . . . I don't think we had anybody from Homosassa Springs."

That is partly because, unlike the Withlacoochee River area, the Springs Coast group has no single-minded crusaders. And the area has no dominant issues, such as the longtime controversy over Wysong Dam in Citrus County.

"We don't have one problem that has galvanized the whole region," said Kent Edwards, a DEP chemist who is overseeing the Springs Coast region.

In fact, Edwards said, when citizens first met in December, they brought up a great number of issues. And because of that, he said, he decided to organize the approach of his management area somewhat differently from the Withlacoochee group.

He thinks involving citizens in complex water issues isn't always effective. For example, a recent study by the Southwest Florida Water Management District has shown elevated levels of nitrates in the Weeki Wachee. The probable cause, according to the study, is lawn fertilizer leaching through the soil.

"Nitrate levels, that's pretty involved. You can't have citizens diving down into the aquifer" to measure the levels, he said.

Instead, he thinks the group should be a forum to discuss problems. And it can bring the force of many organizations to bear on the problems of each group. For example, COST, a group of citizens opposing the Suncoast parkway, has petitioned the television show 60 Minutes to do a piece on what it says are false claims by the state Department of Transportation.

Representatives of COST brought their concerns to a recent meeting and asked representatives of other, like-minded organizations to join their campaign.

The group will "also share information," Spivey said. "We don't have much information on the flows in the springs."

That also means that the group probably will not throw all of its efforts into studying and trying to remedy concerns such as Crossland's.

And it is a very major one, said Crossland, who bases his conclusions not only on observations, but also on his own analysis of Swiftmud measurements. Falling river levels should at least be studied more thoroughly, he said.

In the summers of 1994 and '95, the area experienced heavy rainfall. Despite that, he said, "the flow has dropped back to a very low level after a relatively short period of drought. I think there is more evidence now than ever that groundwater pumping is having an effect."

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