Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed $812,100 in state funding to dredge the Anclote River, but Tarpon Springs says they can pay the difference.
The dredging project would remove nearly two decades’ worth of silt and sediment from the river, restoring the Anclote to its normal depth of 11 feet — deep enough to support commercial fishing boats and waterfront tourism. According to a 2016 economic impact survey, marine and tourism-related business accounts for $252 million in commerce in Tarpon Springs.
Tarpon Springs has already secured more than $4.5 million to dredge the federal channel. The $812,100 that the city requested from the State of Florida would have gone towards dredging the extended turning basin, which is outside of federal jurisdiction.
“The city made sure we had the funds — regardless of whether we obtained them from the state — so we could move forward,” said City Commissioner Costa Vatikiotis.
To pay for dredging the extended turning basin, the city is considering using Penny for Pinellas funds, though that will divert funds from other city projects.
“I don’t know which projects we’ll take the money away from, but it has to be done,” said Mayor Chris Alahouzos. “This is very important to our economy, culture, safety, and development.”
Athena Tsardoulias, owner of Tarpon Sponge Company at the Sponge Docks, said she frequently sees boats get stuck in the turning basin.
“We’ve lost so much commercial traffic in Tarpon Springs, because it’s too shallow,” Tsardoulias said. “We need the extended turning basin to function. The entire city depends on this river economically for our survival.”
The City of Tarpon Springs previously allocated $100,000 to the project. In addition, Pinellas County will provide $300,000, the State of Florida will provide $676,046, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers will provide $3.5 million.
Yet funding for the project isn’t the city’s only concern.
Before dredging to the extended turning basin can begin, Tarpon Springs must receive a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The city’s original application requested to dredge 3.82 acres in the extended turning basin, allowing commercial fishing boats up to 130 feet in length to safely turn around.
The Department of Environmental Protection is now offering a dredging permit for 1.45 acres, less than half of the city’s initial request.
“It’s been my experience that the DEP never gives you what you want,” said Vatikiotis. “They always come back with something less.”
The Anclote is part of the Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve. The Department of Environmental Protection maintains that a reduction in dredge acreage would achieve the city’s goals while minimizing environmental impacts to the preserve.
Rep. Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) is currently in negotiations with the Department of Environmental Protection on behalf of Tarpon Springs. He said these permits are all about math; Tarpon Springs and DEP, he said, are using different formulas to come up with their numbers.
“The amount of area that needs to be dredged is not an exact science,” Sprowls said. “There are other things that play into this, like winds, currents, and turning radii of boats. The city and the DEP just came up with different numbers.
“It’s a question of agreeing on the math, not a question of agreeing on the value of the project,” Sprowls said. “Everyone recognizes how important this is.”
The city is eager to dredge the extended turning basin at the same time as the federal channel. If they add the extended turning basin to the federal maintenance dredge, it will cost $812,100 –– but if they independently dredge the extended turning basin, project manager Bob Robertson estimates it will cost $2 million.
The city could choose to challenge the Department’s offer of 1.45 acres, but they would risk missing the window when the United States Army Corps of Engineers dredges the federal channel, which is expected to begin in the fall.
“It’s a chess game we’re playing, and we’re not in a very good position right now,” said Vatikiotis.
The city commission will discuss their plans to reallocate funds and negotiate permit options for the dredging project on July 14.