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Dredging project approved for bay

Gov. Bush says Port Manatee's plan to dredge Tampa Bay to increase ship berths will spur trade. Others say it will harm habitats.

To the delight of Manatee County business leaders and the chagrin of environmentalists, Gov. Jeb Bush and the state Cabinet approved the biggest Tampa Bay dredging project in three decades Thursday.

By a 7-0 vote, the governor and Cabinet approved the concept behind Port Manatee's $35-million plan to dredge 88 acres of bay bottom to increase its ship berths and turning basin.

Supporters of the dredging _ particularly state Sen. Jim Hargrett, D-Tampa _ cited the potential for increased trade with Latin America as a major reason for expanding the small port just south of the Hillsborough County line.

Bush, who last month led a delegation to Mexico to promote foreign trade, agreed.

"We're connected to the rest of the world," Bush said after the vote. "Expansion of our infrastructure . . . allows us to remain prosperous."

Bush said the plan provided "proper environmental safeguards" to ensure the bay is not ruined.

But leaders of the environmental group ManaSota-88 pointed out that the state's own experts and the National Marine Fisheries Services say the dredging will harm sensitive seagrass beds, endanger manatees and sea turtles, and further cloud the bay's already problematic water quality.

"The scientists who have looked at this are almost unanimous in opposition to what has been proposed," ManaSota-88 attorney Tom Reese told the Cabinet. "This is public land. As trustees you have an obligation to do what is best for the public in regard to that bay bottom."

Reese told the Cabinet that governments around Tampa Bay spend $250-million a year to improve bay waters, and he argued that the dredging would set back those efforts.

Reese was the only person to speak against the project. About 60 business people and government officials packed the Cabinet meeting room. They wore blue buttons decorated with a pair of manatees and the slogan "We Support Port Manatee."

Some had caught an early-morning bus from Bradenton to show their support for a project they expect to create hundreds of jobs and boost the local economy. After the vote, the room echoed with their cheers and applause.

A clearly disappointed ManaSota-88 chairwoman Gloria Rains said, "I won't cry till I get home."

Her organization has filed a legal challenge. Rains said she was worried the Cabinet's action _ which comes after a similar move by the state Department of Environmental Protection _ will lead other ports to pursue dredging.

DEP Deputy Secretary Kirby Green said at least two other ports have contacted state officials although none has officially sought any permits.

Port Manatee's location between two environmentally sensitive aquatic preserves _ Cockroach Bay and Terra Ceia _ makes expansion difficult.

Port officials want to blast away limestone and dredge the bay bottom to expand the area where their 400-foot-wide channel connects to the main shipping channel at the mouth of the bay. They also want to deepen the berths and turning basin at the port just south of the Hillsborough County line.

Initially, their plan called for digging up 76 acres of bay bottom, which would destroy 21 acres of seagrass beds. Seagrasses provide a habitat for small fish, shrimp and crabs. They provide food for manatees and help stabilize shifting sands on the bay bottom. Seagrass leaves filter impurities by trapping sediments and particles.

Environmental groups objected to destroying so many seagrass beds. So port officials reconfigured the plan so it would displace only 12.7 acres of seagrasses. However, that meant increasing the dredging to 88 acres.

The port has promised to scoop up seagrass beds in areas where dredging is planned and transplant them to other areas of the bay where seagrass is now sparse or non-existent. The state's scientists have questioned whether that will work, since seagrasses are not growing there naturally.

The port also promises to plant seagrass beds, restore a blocked creek, limit speedboat traffic and turn a spoil island into a seabird sanctuary. That part of the plan has drawn strong support from the National Audubon Society.

Port director David McDonald pointed out that before the digging can begin the state requires the port to complete the work that makes up for its environmental damage. The port hopes to begin that work by December, he said.

The conceptual approval granted Thursday has a life of 15 years. At present, port authorities don't know when work could begin.

At one point, port officials said they could donate the sand to rebuilding eroded Egmont Key. Some of that material can be used to build up shell pits in Cockroach Bay, which would aid in restoring lost habitat there.

Reese said this is the biggest dredging project since the creation of Port Manatee in the late 1960s, a project that wiped out 150 acres of seagrass.

The port is owned by Manatee County and run by its county commissioners. However, the county is responsible for part of the dredging bill. Most would be paid for by state and federal agencies. Port tenants include a cruise line, Tropicana and Del Monte.

_ Times staff writer Julie Hauserman contributed to this report.