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Sunday, Jun 24, 2018
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Making sure a river runs through it

It is encouraging to see the neglected lower Hillsborough River finally receive thoughtful attention — thanks to persistent citizen activists and innovative state and local officials.

The plan to use water from Blue Sink to augment the river’s flow offers an example of how communities, with cooperation and commitment, can address daunting environmental problems.

For decades the Hillsborough River below the dam was a stagnant, polluted mess. The dam, north of Sulphur Springs, forms a reservoir that provides the bulk of Tampa’s drinking water. Consequently, little fresh water was released downstream during the dry season. About 200 days a year, the lower river had no flow from the dam at all.

So the Hillsborough lacked the fresh water needed to flush the river and invigorate marine life habitat. And with the city’s water demands growing, there looked to be little hope for change.

Fortunately, lawmakers had tasked the state’s five water districts with developing “minimum flows and levels,” and in the 1990s Southwest Florida Water Management District officials began studying the matter.

Scientists determined the lower river was receiving less than half the water it needed.

No snap solutions were available. The city understandably was unwilling to jeopardize its water supply.

It took years, and much prodding by activists such as the Friends of the River, but ultimately, city and water district officials worked out a sensible strategy that utilizes water from Sulphur Springs, Blue Sink and the Tampa Bypass Canal.

The city now has the option of pumping about 10 million gallons of water a day from Sulphur Springs, which is two miles downstream, to the foot of the dam. The former swimming hole is no longer safe for swimming, but suitable for boosting the river flow.

And as The Tampa Tribune’s Kevin Wiatrowski reported last week, the district also approved the city’s plan to pump as much as 2 million gallons of water a day from Blue Sink, a natural pool north of the river, into the Hillsborough.

The city and district will share the $11 million cost of the Blue Sink project.

All this should ensure the lower river the minimum amount of water needed for environmental health.

Some residents who live near Blue Sink near the intersection of Florida and Fowler avenues fear the pumping will threaten their wells and lake levels. Officials need to closely monitor such matters.

But the hydrologists are confident the project will have little impact, and during rainy months the city is unlikely to use Blue Sink at all.

The additional fresh water should put more oxygen in the river, lower its salinity levels and revitalize its marine habitat.

The payoff for all this will be a much healthier and appealing river coursing through the urban heart of Tampa.

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