St Pete Times Article on the Lake Tarpon Management Plan  

Lake Tarpon proposal ready

Local, state and federal entities could spend about $13-million on cleaning up the lake and other improvements if commissioners adopt the plan.

St. Petersburg Times, published July 26, 1999

Nothing like a stubborn, stinky algae bloom to get lake lovers agitated.

That's what happened in 1987 when a coat of blue-green algae blanketed Lake Tarpon, alarming homeowners, lake users and county environmental officials, who began seeking ways to prevent further deterioration of the lake.

Their plans to improve the health of Lake Tarpon and enhance its recreational opportunities are summed up in a 2 1/2-inch-thick report, which will be presented to the Pinellas County Commission Tuesday.

If commissioners adopt the Lake Tarpon Drainage Basin Management Plan, state and federal agencies and local governments could spend nearly $13-million over 10 years building structures and starting programs designed to save the lake.

Those agencies -- including the county, city of Tarpon Springs, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and the Southwest Florida Water Management District or Swiftmud -- would spend another $1.2-million every year to maintain the new facilities and programs.

Supporters of the plan say spending the money is worth it to preserve a lake that provides an estimated $48-million economic boost annually to the county through increased property values and recreation opportunities.

"The reason people come to Pinellas County to live here or visit here as tourists is the natural environment: our beaches, our lakes, our parks, the Pinellas Trail," said County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd. "There's an economic value to that."

The 4-square-mile lake also has sentimental value, she said.

"In the heart of Pinellas County, in the heart of the people of Pinellas County, is a very real environmental ethic. The people of the county have supported over the years the efforts of the Pinellas County Commission to protect natural resources the best we could," Todd said. "I think it's not just the monetary value. There's a priceless value you can't put a dollar figure to."

Commissioners and Pinellas County residents got their first look at the plan two years ago when Coastal Environmental Inc., a division of the engineering firm Post, Buckley, Schuh & Jernigan Inc., presented a draft to the community.

The new version tries to answer questions that residents and environmental officials raised at that time.

The plan suggests ways to prevent excess nitrogen, phosphorus and nuisance vegetation from invading the lake, which can lead to fish kills or algae blooms, like the one 12 years ago. It also outlines how more people can use the lake -- for fishing, skiing or boating -- without getting in one another's way.

The most expensive suggestion: All 1,076 homeowners and business operators still using septic tanks around Lake Tarpon should connect to a sewer system. The cost: about $9.3-million. But the real kicker is this: The city of Tarpon Springs, where 85 percent of the septic tank users live, would have to absorb $7.9-million of that.

"This is the first I've heard about the $7.9-million," John Cruz, director of Public Services for Tarpon Springs, said last week. "I cannot really commit anything at this particular time because I have not had an opportunity to look into this; $7.9-million is megabucks."

County Commissioner Karen Seel said the county needs to draw Tarpon Springs officials into the Lake Tarpon conversation soon if the city is expected to spend so much money.

"I think we should definitely approach Tarpon Springs," Seel said. "They would be the ones who have to bear the brunt of this."

Leaking septic tanks contribute about 6 1/2 tons of nitrogen and nearly 1 ton of phosphorus to Lake Tarpon each year, according to Coastal Engineering's study. Those amounts could be reduced by more than 95 percent if septic tank users hook up to a sewer system, the study estimates.

Stormwater runoff from the lake's 3,400-acre drainage basin carries the largest amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus into the lake: 27 1/2 tons of nitrogen a year and 4 tons of phosphorus.

Much of the contaminated runoff comes from the west side of the lake, where fewer new stormwater treatment ponds exist, said Don Moores, administrator of the county's environmental resources management division.

The plan suggests that the county build six stormwater treatment ponds at a cost of $1.3-million to let silt and contaminants settle out of the runoff before it hits the lake. The plan also recommends updating existing stormwater treatment systems so they perform as well as the new ones.

Flushing dirty water out of the lake on a regular basis by fluctuating the lake levels and pumping clean groundwater in also would improve the quality of the lake, the plan says.

The county also intends to remove 10 acres of cattails and 100 acres of hydrilla, which are aquatic weeds, from Lake Tarpon each year.

The excess nitrogen, phosphorus and vegetation in the lake do not pose a health risk to humans, Moores said. But they can harm native plants and fish, and turn a viable lake into a swamp.

The management plan seeks not only to stop the lake from deteriorating, but also to make the lake healthier, he said.

"It's not just about preserving it at that static point," Moores said. "It's a matter of reversing that trend."

Some of the study's least expensive suggestions are those designed to make the lake more appealing to people and animals.

A pedestrian fishing trail near the outfall canal at the south end of Lake Tarpon would give residents without boats a chance to catch the largemouth bass the lake is famous for, at a cost of about $50,000 to the county.

Another $5,000 would be spent to modify the entrance to Anderson Park off U.S. 19 so visitors could access boat ramps -- but not the rest of the park -- 24 hours a day.

Right now, the boat ramps in both Anderson and John Chesnut Sr. Park close at dusk when the parks do.

County officials also are considering dividing the lake into zones so skiers and personal watercraft users can steer clear of people fishing.

Paul Kempter, a [Little] Dolly Bay resident who created a Web site about Lake Tarpon, said he supports separating the lake's users.

"It tends to be self-enforcing because everybody has an area to do their whatever it is -- sailing, skiing -- and they become protective of that and work hard to make it successful," said Kempter, who has observed the policy in West Palm Beach and San Diego. "Now, everybody's fighting for their piece of the water. You get the water equivalent of road rage."

A full-time marine deputy could be hired to enforce rules on the water. The county also would rely on a citizens group, LakeWatch, to point out any problems.

Critters stand to benefit from the plan as well. Wildlife underpasses along U.S. 19 would help the four-legged variety -- foxes, squirrels, river otters -- get to and from Lake Tarpon.

Homeowners would be encouraged, possibly through a property tax credit, to create urban wildlife habitats on their land by growing native plants, building nesting boxes for birds and reducing the amount of fertilizer and pesticides they use.

The Lake Tarpon Drainage Basin Management Plan suggests looking for state and federal grants to cover some of the costs. If the plan is adopted by county commissioners before the 1999-2000 budget year begins on Oct. 1, all of the recommendations could become reality by 2009.

"We fully intend to try to implement as much of the plan as we can," Moores said. "Having the board officially adopt it is their way of telling us, "Go forth and do.' "

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