The county agency's decision _ and its silence on why _ stuns residents who urged the board to oppose the new rules.
Paul F. Stein had just asked the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission for help when a gray-haired man took Stein aside and whispered into his ear.
"I'm 100 percent behind you," the man said. "I'll do anything I can do to help."
Then he gave him a business card: The man was Roger Stewart, executive director of the EPC.
Stewart's comment wouldn't have been so strange if his staff had not, minutes earlier, recommended that the EPC do precisely what Stein opposed.
Despite pleas from people who live on the Hillsborough River, the commission voted unanimously Wednesday not to oppose new rules that set minimum flow levels for the lower part of the Hillsborough River.
Privately, Stewart said, he agreed with the residents, but he would not explain why his agency voted against them Wednesday.
"There is more to this than meets the eye," Stewart said.
County commissioners _ including staunch environmentalist Jan Platt _ also offered no details.
"I think the citizens deserve an explanation," Platt said, even as she declined to give one. "This was poorly handled."
Later, EPC attorney Sara Fotopulos said there was a chance the EPC might lose even more protections for the river had the agency challenged the new rules in court, and lost.
Residents, who urged the EPC to take action, said they were stunned by the decision _ and the EPC's silence when asked to explain.
"They failed in their role as steward and watchdog for the county," said B. John Ovink, a lawyer who lives on the Hillsborough River.
Opponents have until Friday to challenge the rules, which the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, approved last month.
The rules set minimum water levels for the Hillsborough River to make sure enough freshwater, which fish need to thrive, flows down it.
In a concession to the city of Tampa, Swiftmud will allow the city to meet the water level by piping water from Sulphur Springs into the river, rather than letting freshwater flow over the city's dam.
The dam holds back a 1.3-billion gallon reservoir that supplies 90 percent of Tampa's water. City officials said they couldn't let freshwater flow over the dam at the expense of the city's drinking water.
But environmentalists said the salty water from Sulphur Springs won't help the river enough. They wanted the city to release more freshwater over the dam, as they say the law requires.
"This dooms the river to never be a freshwater river again," said Philip Compton, an officer of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Sierra Club.
_ Times staff writer Steve Huettel contributed to this report. To reach David Karp, call (813) 226-3376 or e-mail karpsptimes.com