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Putting the "clear' back in Clearwater

There was a time long ago when Clearwater Harbor lived up to its name. One could gaze through the clear water and see the bottom. Families enjoyed the abundant bounty of fish and scallops easily harvested from the harbor's waters.

No more. Clearwater Harbor eventually turned dark, the water quality declined and the fish population plummeted. Waterfront residents complained that the water stank and some stopped swimming in it. Tourists were justified in asking the question, "How did Clearwater get its name?"

Significant in the decline of Clearwater Harbor were the sediment and pollutants that flowed into the Intracoastal Waterway from 4-mile-long Stevenson Creek, one of North Pinellas' most important water bodies.

Stevenson Creek accumulates water from a 6,300-acre watershed that stretches from Main Street in downtown Dunedin through central Clearwater to just south of Belleair Road in Largo. The water that runs off all that developed land after rains is laden with sand, leaves, fertilizer, oil, lawn chemicals, trash, animal feces and other chemical and natural pollutants, which are washed into the creek and either deposited in the creek bed or carried straight to the harbor and eventually the gulf.

Stevenson Creek cuts through the older central core of Clearwater and it is surrounded _ in most cases right up to the creek banks _ by heavy development that occurred in an era when there was little awareness of environmental issues. Houses and businesses were built in the natural flood plain of the creek. Residential streets and major roads crisscross the creek and its flood plain. Wetlands that once bordered the creek and provided natural basins for excess water to accumulate and for pollutants to filter out were filled in years ago.

What's the result? Today the water of Stevenson Creek is filthy, homes and businesses around it are at risk of flooding after heavy rains, nearby streets become waterways during storms, and the creek channel is an eroded and silt-filled embarrassment to a city that historically presented itself as environmentally sensitive.

The Clearwater City Commission has the power to change all that, and to do so in relatively short order. Will it have the guts and the foresight to follow through?

In the mid to late 1980s, Clearwater officials took the wrongheaded position that the way to solve Stevenson Creek's problems was to channelize it into concrete ditches or underground culverts. That was a flood-control approach of the '60s and '70s that was discredited when experts discovered that it not only destroyed the beauty and wildlife habitat of natural waterways, but worsened erosion and pollution problems.

The current city staff and elected officials, a more environmentally astute group, deserve praise for their recent study of real solutions to the creek's problems. Last year the city staff and a hired consultant produced the "Stevenson Creek Watershed Management Plan." The report details ways to prevent future flooding and restore the creek to its natural function by, among other things, purchasing and removing homes in some especially flood-prone areas; dredging the thick, polluted muck from the bottom of the creek bed; and re-creating wetlands in several areas near the creek. The plan could cost $35-million to implement over some 15 years.

City officials have seemed comfortable with devoting the time and money necessary to do the job right. The city already has funds budgeted for much of the work that needs to be done, but hopes to add federal funds to the mix. The $7-million dredging project, sought for more than 20 years by creek proponents and residents who live along the shallow north end of the creek, could begin as early as next year.

But the most critical project in the plan is far less definite. In fact, city officials seem to be moving in a direction that would complicate, if not eliminate, their ability to accomplish that project.

Glen Oaks Golf Course is a 27-acre, city-owned course just east of Stevenson Creek between Court Street and Druid Road. The city leases the property to the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation, which maintains it as a public course and for use in its charitable youth programs.

The problem is that the golf course and surrounding areas, including neighborhoods and several major roads, have flooded badly after heavy rains. People who live in that area have lost their belongings and their lives have been endangered.

Furthermore, the Glen Oaks course is at the center of a 535-acre area that produces the most polluted runoff of the entire Stevenson Creek drainage basin.

The solution, agree engineers, environmentalists and creek advocates alike, is to turn most of the golf course into a water retention area. A 13-acre pond would be created in the low-lying westernmost portion where the creek is located. Another 4-acre pond would be constructed in the northeast portion of the property to treat dirty stormwater. The remaining Glen Oaks acreage would be parkland.

Enormous benefits would accrue from the Glen Oaks project. Seventy-eight of 104 flood-susceptible dwelling units would no longer be at risk, and the remaining units would flood far less often. Severe flooding of several nearby streets would be eliminated and the degree of flooding on Cleveland Street, a hurricane evacuation route, would be reduced. The ponds would permit the removal of thousands of pounds of sediment and other pollutants annually from the creek water before it flows downstream toward Clearwater Harbor. And a new wetland area of about 7 acres would be created to attract and nurture wildlife.

Yet the city has made some recent decisions about the Glen Oaks course that seem shortsighted. The city signed a new 10-year lease with the Chi Chi foundation in 2000 (though it at least inserted an escape clause), and is proceeding with plans to build a $300,000 golf course clubhouse on the land. Why?

And some city officials lately have sounded reluctant to stir people up by shutting down the golf course. The idea of doing some sort of smaller retention pond on a portion of the course has even been floated.

Making the decision to close the golf course and doing it sooner rather than later might seem tough to city commissioners, several of whom are new in their posts. After all, Chi Chi Rodriguez is a much-loved figure locally, and his foundation, which has some powerful advocates in the community, does good work with young people. The golf course also is enjoyed by older golfers who have trouble walking larger courses.

But it would be unconscionable for commissioners to choose a recreational facility over a water management project that ultimately could save lives, prevent destruction of property, and reduce the damaging flood of highly polluted water into Clearwater Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico.

City commissioners ought to strongly support the plan's proposals for Glen Oaks. There may be no other decision this City Commission will make that will benefit current and future residents more.