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Wednesday, Jun 28, 2017
Politics

Project pumps fresh water into Hillsborough River

TAMPA - For nearly a century, Tampa's Rowlette Park dam has blocked much of the fresh water flowing down the Hillsborough River so city residents can use it to brush their teeth, flushing their toilets and watering their lawns. As a result, the river below the dam became largely a salty finger of Tampa Bay, eliminating many of the plants and animals that thrived in a mix of salt and fresh water. Five years ago, state and city officials embarked on a collection of projects they hope will make the lower Hillsborough more like its old self by pumping in millions of gallons of fresh water from a network of other sources. Mayor Bob Buckhorn threw one of five such projects into gear Monday morning when he officially opened the pump station at Sulphur Springs.
Buckhorn praised the project as a boon to the river and the city. Then he paused. "I don't have anything to cut," he said, pantomiming a pair of scissors as the pump house whirred to life in the distance behind him. "I don't have anything to blow up or anything to knock down with a bulldozer," he said. So he settled for the best option left to a mayor bereft of public works props. "Turn on those pumps!" he shouted over his shoulder at the building. The seconds stretched out as public officials, environmental advocates and neighborhood activists waited for something to happen. Then water gushed from the enormous pipe spanning the spring. At the same time, thousands of gallons of spring water shot east to join the river at the dam two miles away. The $5.3 million plumbing project, mandated by the Southwest Florida Water Management district in 2007, will keep a constant supply of fresh water in the river. Swiftmud split the cost with the city. Swiftmud Executive Director Blake Guillroy said it's money well spent. "This river is the lifeblood of our region," Guillroy said. "It's is a treasure to all of us." The Sulphur Springs project is among a handful of big projects Swiftmud is working on to pump fresh water back into the river. Plans call for using the Tampa Bay Bypass Canal and tapping into groundwater at Blue Sink near 109th Street and Florida Avenue, the Morris Bridge Sink northeast of Temple Terrace. Sinks are water-filled sinkholes disconnected from other groundwater flows. Together, the parts of the project will cost more than $22.9 million and take several more years to complete. The city's portion is just more than $13 million. The goal is to keep a bare-bones 12.9 million gallons of freshwater flowing into the river every day. That's not hard during the rainy season, when the river routinely spills over the dam. But it becomes critical during dry periods, water stops flowing over the dam. The Hillsborough River starts in the Green Swamp northeast of Hillsborough County but it draws more freshwater from tributaries in Pasco and Hillsborough counties. Before the dam when was built in 1916, the river's mix of fresh and salt water made it a fertile nursery for marine life. After the dam went up, the river below it grew saltier. The pumping project is designed to freshen the river without altering the dam, where water is diverted and treated to feed the city's sinks, showers and toilets, said Sid Flannery, chief environmental scientist for Swiftmud. City water managers can adjust their draw from Sulphur Springs from moment to moment based on the temperature and salinity of water in the river. If all goes as planned, the Hillsborough will become healthier and more biologically diverse than it has been in decades, Flannery said. Buckhorn said the project isn't sexy, but it is necessary. A healthy river equals a healthy city, he said. Buckhorn, like mayors before him, continues trying to turn the Hillsborough River into the city's showpiece. He cut the ribbon last week on the newest segment of the city's Riverwalk project. "We are making a passionate case for why we should celebrate the Hillsborough River is all its forms," Buckhorn said. kwiatrowski@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7871 Twitter: kevinw_trib
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