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Minor fixes a first step to prevent flooding

Add a pipe in Briarwoods. Clear the ditches in Sierra Pines. Raise the low-lying parts of Denton Avenue and Kitten Trail.

They're modest fixes. But they're the first step toward tackling the county's flooding problems.

The County Commission will vote today on spending $325,000 on those changes. Because dozens of other flood-prone areas will need multimillion-dollar solutions, commissioners will also vote on updating a study that looks at ways to pay for them.

The 1997 study offered a couple of ideas for creating a countywide stormwater utility _ essentially a taxing district to raise money for drainage improvements. But the study sat on a shelf, and the economic assumptions are now eight years old.

"We would be updating the study as to how we would assess (homeowners and businesses) and what would be an appropriate rate that would generate X number of dollars," said Michele Baker, director of emergency management. "Then we would determine how to use the money after that."

She plans to bring the updated study back to the commission "for public hearings no later than June."

The drainage projects needed across the county could top $186-million, Baker said. Compliance with a federal stormwater pollution act could run an additional $182-million, she said.

Paying for it will be a daunting task.

So for now, staffers are focusing on the smaller drainage improvements.

The entrance to the Briarwoods subdivision in northwest Pasco often has to be pumped after heavy rain, but renting the equipment is expensive. The proposed solution: The homeowners association bought its own pump, and the county plans to lay a permanent pipe to handle the stormwater.

Baker said it is cheaper to install a pipe ($10,000) than to rent a hose for $10,000 to $15,000 a month.

In nearby Hudson, crews propose elevating a stretch of Denton Avenue and Kitten Trail.

Both roads have low points that become submerged after heavy rain. The roads were closed last year from Labor Day to the end of October because of hurricane downpours.

Raising the low points and adding culverts would cost $100,000 per road.

Under a third proposal, crews would clear out the muck in drainage ditches in Sierra Pines, allowing water to drain easier from the Lutz neighborhood. Crews also would add culverts in a few spots.

"For a while we thought, "We're an old subdivision. They've completely forgotten about us,' " said Margie Coffaro, a Sierra Pines resident who is slowly getting her back yard back as the floodwater recedes. "It looks like now they're making a concerted effort. I hope it helps."

Even if the commission approves the projects, however, the improvements could be a couple of months away. The county won't be able to pay for the work until it gets reimbursed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for other hurricane-related expenses, Baker said.

Commissioners also will consider changing their policy so crews can start pumping sooner in flood-prone areas such as Frierson Lake, the Great Cypress swamp, Hickory Hill and Silver Oaks. Under the existing policy, crews have to wait until water is within 6 inches of a home.

The proposal sounded like good news to Jim Cable, a Frierson Lake resident who turned his pickup into a water taxi last year after the hurricanes flooded his Hudson neighborhood.

"If they can start pumping earlier, that's better for us because our houses aren't going to get as damaged because we're not going to get as much water," Cable said. "It sounds like an excellent idea."

Altogether, the proposals put a small dent in Pasco's flooding problems, but Baker called it a start.

"This is the beginning," Baker said, "and it's an important beginning, but it's not the end."

Bridget Hall Grumet covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is bhallsptimes.com.

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