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Hillsborough County is planning a multimillion-dollar project along the Hillsborough River, and one hopes the river will look good enough to deserve the adornment.

The project, dubbed Riverwalk, will be a pedestrian mall once construction is finished sometime in 2010. It will connect the areas of Tampa Heights and Channelside with a two-mile walkway, complete with restaurants and shops.

But the river where it will be placed might not be as picturesque as such a project might require within three years. It isn’t doing well.

“The Hillsborough River is sick,” according to “Channels for Change,” a Tampa Tribune article. The lower Hillsborough River is already classified as “impaired waters,” which essentially means that either the level of dissolved oxygen in the water is too low to support healthy fish, or the level of pollution is too high for the waters to achieve their intended purpose.

Other segments of the Hillsborough River seem to be in similar shape. After a lawsuit in the late 1990s, the state of Florida and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agreed on 712 polluted waterways they would attempt to rehabilitate. After former governor Jeb Bush was elected, some 200 of those waterways were removed from the list, including many portions of the upper Hillsborough. After much discussion, the EPA had 80 returned to health, but the upper portions of the Hillsborough River were not among them. In other words, the upper portions of the river could be in terrible shape, while simply being ignored.

It may fall on the taxpayers to pay for the needed rehabilitation, of course, but think about it this way: It’s a simple monetary investment. Houses contain the workers in the economy, who happen to pay property taxes. The taxes on properties that face a river are quite hefty. Cleaning the river now will pay for itself in the future.

With an attractive river, more people will want to enjoy the future Riverwalk, thereby bringing more businesses and more money. Interest in riverfront property would rise, and revenue from property taxes would increase commensurately. In exchange for one admittedly arduous task, Tampa would experience benefits for years, not the least of which would be millions of additional dollars from jobs and property taxes.

If Tampa is going to invest serious money into a commercial project, they ought to secure their investment. Achieving that security will require ensuring the river on which the project is set won’t make patrons sick if they happen to fall in.