When Commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand stepped out onto her porch Sunday morning, she caught a whiff of something that smelled suspiciously of sewer.
Glancing into the canal behind her Gulf Harbors house, Hildebrand saw murky goo floating on the surface of the water.
Like a number of her neighbors, Hildebrand said, she wondered if a sewage spill had contaminated the canal. In particular, the Cross Bayou has been the site of a number of spills from the county's facilities and those of the private Lindrick Services Corp.
But a few calls to state health and environmental regulators preliminarily ruled out that possibility, Hildebrand said.
The floating, greenish-brown slime appears to be algae similar to the kind found floating in the Pithlachascotee River several weeks ago.
"It's like coffee with a lot of milk in it," Hildebrand said with a laugh.
The commissioner said she has fielded a number of calls from her neighbors who wanted to know what the stuff was and whether it was safe to swim in the area.
"It has a definite sewage smell to it," Hildebrand said.
But the culprit appears to be algae that thrive on warmer waters and fertilizer nutrients that wash off from people's lawns into the residential canals, said Nan Jordan, an environmental manager with the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"It makes a huge, giant algae incubator," Jordan said of the nutrient-rich canal water warmed up by last week's hot temperatures.
Bacteria tests conducted this week showed levels far too low to indicate sewage in the water, Jordan said. Although her office has not yet tested the water for algae, that is the suspected problem, she added.
The sewage smell people noticed most likely is sulphur dioxide created when the algae begin to die, Jordan said. That process eats up the oxygen supply in the water, which can result in major fish kills that people often assume are associated with some kind of toxic spill, Jordan said.
Anyone with questions about the stuff in the canals can call Jordan at (813) 558-5167 during regular business hours, but the line is not equipped with voice mail.
_ Times staff writer Alisa Ulferts covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is ulfertssptimes.com.