Ron Smith knows about the changes that Temple Terrace residents see in the levels of the Hillsborough River.
As chairman of the Temple Terrace River Watch Task Force, Smith monitors the rise and fall of the portion of the river that flows through the “Amazing City.” This portion of the river is also known as the "middle river."
In late August and early September, the levels in the middle river were unusually high, reaching more than 25 feet at Fowler Avenue.
“There were places along the river within our city where docks were underwater, structures were underwater, back yards were flooded in some cases,” Smith told the Temple Terrace City Council at its Sept. 18 meeting. “There were no homes in danger, but we did have some pretty good flooding.”
So, the River Watch Task Force met with the Southwest Florida Water Management District this month to discuss what water level is too high and what preventative steps could be taken to avoid flooding.
“We have decided to revise the elevations for two of our structures to prevent this from happening again in the future,” said Robyn O. Felix, the district’s media relations manager. “If the water elevation reaches 24 feet at the Hillsborough River at Fowler, we will first close structure S-163, which will close Cow House Creek and divert the water to the Tampa Bypass Canal. If the water elevation reaches 25 feet at the Hillsborough River at Fowler, we will close structure S-155, which will close off the upper Hillsborough River and divert the water to the Tampa Bypass Canal.”
(Check the map that appears with this story for reference.)
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It’s a win for Temple Terrace, Smith said.
“It gives us, the citizens of Temple Terrace, the opportunity to have some water diverted off the river at 24 at Fowler and begin to start lowering the river,” he told the council. “And if that works: Fine. But if it continues to rise, then they can stop it completely and avert the water to the bypass.”
What the task force is still working on though is getting the district to agree to minimum levels of the Hillsborough River.
“We made great progress on maximum levels this time, but we still have some work to do on minimum levels,” Smith said.
For years, city officials say they’ve tried to get the district to set minimum levels. When the river gets too low, boats can’t use it and wildlife might be affected, they’ve said.
At a City Council meeting in August, Councilman David Pogorilich clarified that city officials are concerned about the minimum levels of the middle river as opposed to the minimum flow.
“That’s what their ‘do-no-harm’ is based on is minimum flows, so as long as the water’s flowing, they don’t care how high it is in our section of the river,” Pogorilich said.
When the Friends of the River, the Tampa river task force, brought a lawsuit against the district, the district conducted a study of the lower river and increased the minimum flow in that portion. Minimum levels have also been adopted for the upper river.
“Our section needs to get equal consideration,” said Councilwoman Alison Fernandez in August.
But Sid Flannery, the district’s scientist in charge of the Lower Hillsborough River Recovery, said in August that the minimum levels in the upper river protect the flow into the middle river.
“I think the members of the River Watch Task Force, under your guidance, are going to continue to march down the road we’ve been marching down, continue to ask for minimum levels on the Hillsborough River,” Smith said Sept. 18. “We think it’s important to the City of Temple Terrace to allow our citizens to be able to utilize that river, navigate on it, use it for recreation, have the wildlife and fish be able to move from one area to the other.”
Adding to the city’s concerns is the district’s plan to pump water from Morris Bridge Sink, which is located north of Temple Terrace, to provide water to the lower river.
Flannery assured the City Council in August that pumping at Morris Bridge Sink would not affect the river as it flows through Temple Terrace. The district and the Department of Environmental Protection are allowing the Temple Terrace River Watch Task Force to review the district’s application before it is submitted to the DEP.
After talking about minimum levels in the middle river and learning about the district’s plan to stop the flow of water if the maximum level is reached, Fernandez brought up what Smith called “an excellent point.”
“What triggers them (to re-release) the water into the river?” she asked. “If there is no minimum level or minimum flow established, theoretically, how do we get them to get the water flowing again?”
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