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Flood talks leave residents frustrated

(ran PC edition of Pasco Times)

The Corps of Engineers accepts part of the blame for faulty dams and changing water levels, but can't promise a fix any time soon.

For Karol Klein and 70 other east Pasco residents, at least one good thing came out of Tuesday night's meeting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discuss water-related problems in the Withlacoochee River basin.

The corps admitted that the dams it has built throughout the basin are partially to blame for the region's wildly fluctuating water levels.

But Klein and many others left the meeting wondering whether the corps would ever do anything about the flooding that area residents say has washed away leachate from the east Pasco landfill and redeposited harmful contaminants throughout the region, possibly into the aquifer.

Tuesday's meeting was the beginning of a lengthy process to pinpoint problems in the Withlacoochee basin and possibly someday fix them. Congress allocated $200,000 last year to study flooding and water quality and supply concerns in the river basin.

The initial study, which is expected to take about a year, involves meetings like the one Tuesday night at the Florida National Guard armory, during which the Corps of Engineers received written and oral comments from concerned residents.

Later this year, the corps will send a report of its findings to Congress, accompanied by a request for an in-depth feasibility study that wouldn't be done until 2004. Getting congressional approval for the feasibility study, which would outline a plan to fix the problems, is typically a formality, said Vern Gwin, a project manager with the corps.

But, a skeptical Klein asked, will anything productive ever come of these studies?

"There's no guarantee" the federal government will fund any construction projects, said Gwin. And if it did, Gwin said, the state or local governments would have to pay half the project's cost.

"We don't want to get anyone's hopes up," Gwin said. "There's hoops we have to jump through along the way."

And then, responding to comments by Klein that the corps was responsible for some of the region's water problems, Gwin said: "I'm admitting that we made some mistakes in the past, and we're willing to step in and help fix those."

Most of the people in attendance Tuesday night were ranchers and farmers who have lived near the Withlacoochee River in east Pasco for years, some for generations. They told similar stories of watching lakes sucked dry and of fast-rising flood waters that have no place to go because of all the canals and dams that have altered the natural course of the river and the Green Swamp.

Their biggest concern was that contaminants from the landfill, less than a mile from the Withlacoochee, and the area's chicken farms had been spread by the floods and sucked into the aquifer during dry periods. They pointed out that sandy northeast Pasco is one of the state's highest water recharge areas.

Some said they were afraid to eat the fish they caught in the river or drink their well water.

"We have no agenda except that we want clean water," Klein said as the audience broke into applause. "You take your vitamins at night and it scares you."

Sitting in the auditorium listening to the concerns, were state Rep. Ken Littlefield, R-Dade City, and Pasco County Commissioner Sylvia Young. Hernando County Commission Chairwoman Pat Novy also attended.

"I'm here to learn what's on everybody's mind," Littlefield said after the meeting. "But I didn't hear any new problems."

Water activist Chester Bradshaw told representatives from the Corps of Engineers that many of the problems could be solved by removing the series of dams and canals in the basin that date back to the days when timber companies floated logs down the Withlacoochee.

"You want to go as close to natural as you can," Bradshaw said.

The corps also is beginning a study of the Hillsborough River basin.

A draft of the corps' report on the Withlacoochee should be ready by April, Gwin said.

Gwin urged residents to be patient with the time-consuming process. Congress wouldn't have authorized the study, he said, if it didn't think there were problems that needed correcting.

"Comments like these are just what we're looking for," he said. "We've got to know what your concerns are so we can figure out where we're going."