TARPON SPRINGS — Less than a week after Pinellas County commissioners met to discuss how to use $7.2 million of BP settlement money, advocates for the dredging of the Anclote River have made their move.
And after meeting County Commissioner David Eggers last week to explain the deteriorating condition of Tarpon Spring's waterfront, it looks like the county may be on board. The commissioner said he is supportive of the dredging project.
"Anytime we can help a community in regards to infrastructure, economic development and tourism, I think it is a good thing," he said. "There is a lot of history, tradition and culture in Tarpon Springs, and the docks are extremely important not only for tourism, but for moving goods in and out."
The river's channel hasn't been dredged since 1998. As a result, silt has built up causing water levels to be less than three feet deep at low tide and preventing large boats from coming into port.
Robert Robertson, who is the project manager for the city's proposed dredging project, and members of the newly formed Maritime Commerce Committee — made up of sponge dock business owners, a member of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary and residents passionate about the city's coastline — say the channel started reverting to an unhealthy state in 2008, but has gotten progressively worse since.
Now, it's so bad big boats have stopped coming to Tarpon Springs to avoid bottoming out in the shallow waters, which has happened to some commercial fishing boats and larger recreational vessels, locals say.
The channel is federally maintained, meaning the United States Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the operation of the dredge, but the city must act as a local sponsor, responsible for finding federal funding to pay for it and finding a place for dredged material to be dumped.
Roberts said the first phase of the project, which includes design and permitting, should take about 18 months and cost about $300,000. The second phase, which includes the actual dredging, will take about four months and cost about $4 million.
The city must find federal funding for both phases, as well as for the dump site, which is estimated to cost $750,000 to $1 million, Roberts said. In 1998, the county agreed to give the city up to $659,000 for the design and construction of the dump site, which Eggers said will likely be repeated if the county gets involved.
"We would like to take a similar approach to what we did before, so funds for the spoils site will definitely be part of the conversation," he said.
Karen Lemmons, city economic development manager, said the project is in its infancy, and the next step is to build support by reaching out to local members of Congress for backing. She said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, and U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis and David Jolly have all expressed interest.
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Former City Manager Costa Vatikiotis, who was instrumental in the completion of the 1998 dredging, said that without another dredge soon, commercial shrimp and fishing boats won't be able to stop in Tarpon to unload their catches. The city, which is known for its working waterfront, will eventually collapse, he said.
"Word is going to get out and it already has," he said. "All it takes is a group of boaters sitting, talking and having a beer around a table, and one of them will bring up the channel in Tarpon and how they ran aground and damaged their boat. So the rest of the people listening aren't going to stop in Tarpon."
John Young, owner of River Energy, a fuel station servicing boats using the port, agreed.
"People want to come here, but if they think they're going to do thousands of dollars' worth of damage to their boats every time they come here, they're just going to start bypassing us," he said. "Tarpon doesn't need to get that rap."
Athena Tsardoulias, owner of Tarpon Sponge, Inc. and a member of the Sponge Docks Merchant Association, says if the commercial industry goes under in Tarpon Springs, so will tourism.
"Without a working waterfront, we are just another small, coastal town," she said. "Our claim to fame is gone."
She said working at the sponge docks has given her a good read on why visitors come to Tarpon Springs: authenticity and tradition.
"People come from all over the world to see old Florida, the real thing, and that is what we have going for us," Tsardoulias said. "The waterfront, where people can see fish and shrimp and sponges actually coming in and unloaded, that is our authentic draw."
She said without the dredge, boats will start going to Tampa, where the water is deeper, making it easier and less risky for them to maneuver in and out of port. But Tampa doesn't have what Tarpon Springs does, she said.
"We are a living museum, still doing what we did over 100 years ago or more," she said. "Now we are on the verge of losing our economy, of falling apart. We need this dredge to keep us alive."
Contact Megan Reeves at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.