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Full team needed to hasten tussock removal

Citrus County is in a race against time as it chops through hundreds of acres of floating weeds and muck that are choking the Tsala Apopka lake chain. Standing in the way of this vital effort are a fickle Mother Nature and an inflexible federal agency.

Not much can be done about the falling water levels in the lake and the cool weather that is causing the weed mats, called tussocks, to solidify and sink to the lake bottom. But overly bureaucratic officials at the Army Corps of Engineers can and should grasp the urgency of this important project and help, not hinder, the effort.

The sticking point is simple, as is the solution.

With the financial help of several state agencies, the county since October has had machinery in the Hernando Pool chewing through about 300 acres of tussocks that have blocked in about 1,000 residents' docks and businesses. The project is going so well that the three man-made islands where the torn tussocks are being dumped to decompose are filling up rapidly.

The county estimates that by the end of January, the sites will be filled to the level allowed under a 1998 Army Corps permit. All that is needed, county officials say, is for the corps to adjust the permit and let the county pile the chewed-up vegetation higher.

That's where the bureaucracy comes in.

As anyone who has ever dealt with a permitting agency knows all too well, even the simplest things take time. Lots of it. And this case is no exception, despite the fact that it is one branch of government dealing with another.

County officials say they have tried unsuccessfully to get the Army Corps to understand what is at stake. The County Commission invited the corps as well as representatives from state agencies and local legislators to its Jan. 13 meeting to discuss the problem. Everyone showed up, except for the appropriate Army Corps representative.

An Army Corps official in Jacksonville told the Citrus Times later that the county had not let her know that the situation was becoming desperate.

Even it that were true then, the agency certainly knows about it now. In recent days, various state and federal officials have contacted the corps on Citrus County's behalf. The results, however, are hardly promising. On Wednesday, Commissioner Josh Wooten relayed to the Times that the county has been told the Army Corps is trying to cooperate.

With any luck, he said, Citrus may get its permit extension _ sometime in March.

That is simply unacceptable.

As a frustrated County Administrator Richard Wesch pointed out, no environmental concerns have been raised about the project. Funding is not the issue. All the county wants to do is to make the tussock piles higher.

This sort of governmental obstinacy hardly new. Wesch recalled a similar situation two years ago when the county tried to take advantage of drawn-down lake levels during the severe drought to clear muck from the lake bottoms. Again, the county was confounded by trying to get the appropriate permits from various agencies.

In exasperation, the commission sent Wesch to Gainesville to meet with agency officials. He discovered that the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps shared a suite of offices. Wesch said he found the county's paperwork, where it had been sitting for months, in one office, and he literally walked it across the building to the other agency, shaving untold days and weeks of further delay.

As Wesch correctly notes, aren't the various arms of government supposed to be on the same team? Whatever happened to cooperation and customer service?

The Army Corps, like all agencies, has a vital role in environmental projects and no one is suggesting that it should ignore its responsibilities or make undue allowances to other branches of the government simply to be team players.

However, the corps must understand the details of tussocks removal. After all, it is the permitting agency. Surely someone on staff can explain to the agency's permit gatekeepers why this extension can and should be granted immediately.

Until now, the project has been a shining example of how governments can cooperate to fix a serious local environmental problem. Citrus County is getting the work done using $500,000 culled from the budgets of the DEP, the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Withlacoochee River Basin Board. The offices of U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, and state Rep. Charlie Dean all have been involved.

At this critical moment, all that is needed is for the Army Corps to join the team.

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