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Don't cut off lake from canal, residents say

While boats rarely pass through the Inglis Lock, homeowners don't want to lose the option of using the route.

After spending years complaining about the maintenance costs and the low-level usage of the Inglis Lock, the state Office of Greenways and Trails was heartened about obtaining $1.8-million in this year's budget to fund a permanent shutdown of the 600-foot structure.

But not everyone is as excited about letting the office spend the money.

Concern about the potential loss of access to the Gulf of Mexico sparked a minor uprising several months ago among Lake Rousseau residents, including state Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River.

She demanded a public workshop on the issue and got it. About 100 people converged Monday upon the National Guard Armory to speak with local residents and ask questions of a group that not only represented Greenways and Trails but the offices of elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon.

The lock connects Lake Rousseau, a man-made lake formed in the early-1900s, to the former Cross Florida Barge Canal, a failed federal project that would have connected Florida's eastern and western shores for barge traffic.

More than whether the lock should stay operational, the issue for many remains navigability, the ability to move a boat between the lake and the canal.

Greenways and Trails cites figures showing the lock is used only several dozen times annually at a cost of $750 for each opening and closing. However, some see their rights being trampled in the process.

The lock provides "desirable" access for current and future residents, said Jack Dennis, chairman of the Rainbow River Advisory Council. "Our passage was there when we bought our property and they have no right to take it away from us."

Others emphasized environmental issues and supported closure.

For example, former state Rep. Helen Spivey of the Save the Manatee Club pointed out that three manatees have been caught in the massive steel and concrete structure, which is so big it releases 11,000 gallons of water into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ron O'Connell was among those homing in on flood control issues. Any plan needs to include an operational flood control device, not just a simple overflow structure, he said.

The state's $1.8-million proposal includes alternative access to the canal by one or more ramps in the vicinity of the lock. One route could be via the Withlacoochee River.

Spokeswoman Leslie Palmer said this plan would be cheaper and more convenient to boaters than building complicated boat hoists. Greenways and Trails will take the comments to Department of Environmental Protection director David Struhs, who will develop a recommendation for Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet, spokeswoman Leslie Palmer said.

People came with their own ideas for modifying the structure. Bernie Campbell, who has spent years fighting a hydroelectric dam proposal along the nearby Inglis Lock Spillway, told the crowd he wants to see that fresh water diverted toward the lower Withlacoochee River.

"The barge canal and the lock are . . . a monument to absurdity," he said. "We need to maintain . . . the lower part of the river."

Argenziano pushed for the meeting after criticizing Greenways and Trails for not better publicizing its plans for the lock. She began the 4 p.m. meeting by crediting the office for good work in the past but putting it on the spot to back up its call for closure.

She questioned the office's reliance on reports by a Tampa engineering firm that sounded an alarm for repairs and put a multimillion-dollar price tag on the work, saying the figures were overblown. She also blamed Greenways and Trails for discouraging use of the lock by keeping the lake poorly marked and difficult to navigate.

Several people, Argenziano included, underlined the importance of involving the federal government in the issue. The federal government helps maintain the river because it is a federally navigable waterway but removing that certification could threaten funding for various projects, including desedimentation and a river basin study, they said.