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Week's events not enough to preserve precious waters

EDITOR'S NOTE: Save Our Waters Week is sponsored annually by Citrus 20/20 Inc. in partnership with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Southwest Florida Water Management District, the Citrus County government and other entities. The purpose of Save Our Waters Week is to promote public awareness, education and consensus to save our waters. The Citrus Times is publishing commentaries for this year's Save Our Waters Week from the perspectives of individuals involved with water conservation.

Our local waters along the "springs coast" of Florida are in trouble. This week marks the ninth annual Save Our Waters Week when Citrus County citizens volunteer to pick up trash in and around our beaches, springs, rivers, bays and lakes, an activity affected by this year's hurricanes. Laudable as these efforts are, they only scratch the surface.

Estuaries around the country are in deep trouble. Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties have been falling victim to deteriorating environmental conditions that destroy the very natural habitat that brought many of us to the region. (Estuaries are coastal bays or rivers and their freshwater tributaries.)

Estuaries provide essential habitats for wild birds, animals and fish; they are the nurseries for many species. These waterways also provide resources for diverse uses, including commerce, public infrastructure and recreation.

As a breeding ground for many varieties of fish, Florida has a fishing industry, aquaculture and tourism that also depend upon the health of our estuaries. How are we doing? Both finfish and invertebrate catches in 1999 and 2000 were well below those of prior years.

Still, as a percentage by weight of all Florida fish caught by commercial fishermen, the relative importance of Springs Coast catch increased in the decade of the 1990s. However, a frightening trend in the three counties is clearly seen in the declining total weight of fish caught commercially in 1990, '95 and '00: 3,224, 2,253 and 2,310 tons, respectively. (Citrus County catch was, by far, the largest in each of these years.)

This year's catch of scallops was also very disappointing.

What major problems have the nation's estuaries experienced in recent years? Federal Environmental Protection Agency studies indicate the major culprits have been habitat loss, nutrient pollution, toxic chemicals, pathogens, altered water flow, invasive species, marine debris and unsustainable fishing. Clearly, the nation was facing critical decisions in caring for its estuarine resources when the Congress passed the Clean Waters Act Amendments in 1987 that established the National Estuary Program.

The program was created to identify nationally significant estuaries that are threatened by pollution, land development, or overuse, and to award federal grants that support the development of comprehensive management plans to restore and protect them. Governors can nominate estuaries within their states to be admitted into the National Estuary Program. A total of 28 estuaries in 17 states and Puerto Rico have been admitted.

The EPA administers the program in cooperation with other federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofit institutions, industry and citizens to address an estuary's environmental problems. The National Estuary Program law authorized funds from 2001 to 2005 for a new estuary habitat restoration program to be carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers with a goal of restoring 1-million acres of estuarine habitat by 2010. This represents a new source of funding for implementing approved management plans under the program.

A workshop was sponsored by the Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council on Aug. 6 at the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. The speakers included Dick Eckinrod, executive director of Tampa Bay Estuary Program; Keith Laakkonen, aquatic preserve manager, St. Martins March Aquatic Preserve and Big Bend Seagrass Aquatic Preserve; and Gary Maidhof, Citrus County development services director. Staff and commissioners from nearby counties attended.

This workshop represents the beginning of a lengthy process. The first step has been taken and progress will now depend upon the willingness and commitment of county governments of the Springs Coast and state agencies to work together.

The problems we face locally, such as proliferation of Lyngbya in Kings Bay this summer, are diverse and have various causes and solutions. So, a regional approach appears needed. We, as citizens, need to speak out to assure our elected officials that we support a coordinated clean-up effort.

The next step should be to work toward creating a Springs Coast Estuary Restoration Council with the help of our legislative delegation. Regional coordination can be fostered by establishing the council with representation from each county and river basin, including citizen representatives.

The council would work with county and state government agencies. Their objective would be to specifically determine the scope and magnitude of region-specific problems and their causes. They would determine what restoration efforts can be undertaken locally, in collaboration among the counties, or with state help, and determine what federal assistance, if any, is required to successfully complete the restoration program.

When, and if, the needs for federal assistance are determined, requests should be made through the governor's office to request National Estuary Program designation and to obtain funding to help complete a regional Estuary Restoration Management Plan. This effort would benefit the Withlacoochee, Crystal, Homosassa, Chassahowitzka, Weeki Wachee, Aripeka and Pithlachascotee rivers.

Citizen support for such an approach appears assured with the help and cooperation of several groups, such as the Homosassa River Alliance, Kings Bay Association, Citrus County Council and others. All are members of, and support, Save Our Waters Week 2004.

Gus Krayer is first vice president of the Citrus County Council and chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

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