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    Search for drinking water may turn even uglier

    Think deals among bay area counties and the building of a desalination plant on Tampa Bay were difficult? Just wait.

    By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 2, 2002


    When it comes to new water resources for this thirsty region, the easy part is over.

    What easy part, you might ask.

    Everyone knows the past few decades have suffered squalid political brawls, bitter personal animosities and scores of expensive lawsuits within the Pinellas-Pasco-Hillsborough region, all over water. The nastiness spawned hard-won intergovernmental agreements that seem as complex as international nuclear test-ban treaties and financial deals as convoluted as corporate takeovers.

    How could anyone call that the easy part?

    Easy.

    All you have to do is look at what's to come.

    Despite the wide range of new water resources that will come online in the next few years, the supplies they generate will not be enough to meet the region's needs as growth and redevelopment speed forward. The region will need significant additional quantities of water, and there aren't that many options for finding it.

    The idea receiving the most attention is a new desalination plant on the Gulf of Mexico. At the moment, however, the price of such a facility appears prohibitive -- both in construction costs that could soar to three times the price tag on the desal plant under construction in Hillsborough County, and in the big bump consumers would see in their water bills.

    The second choice is to develop a lot more groundwater, a likely career-ender for any politician buying into the idea. Vast environmental damage done by overdependence on groundwater in the past has left a thick residue of distrust and resentment with voters who would like to see groundwater pumping go away forever.

    The third choice could be an expansion of the Tampa Bay region to include more water-rich areas such as Hernando and Citrus counties and beyond. But such a move would require a change in state law that requires all local sources of water to be exhausted first. And it would spark new water wars so bitter they likely would make the battles of the past look like a series of square dances.

    "There may not be any choice," said Jerry Maxwell, general manager of Tampa Bay Water, the region's dominant water utility. "If we find we can't afford a second desal plant, and if our groundwater options are limited, we have to recognize that 80 percent of the population of Florida lives on or near the coast and the majority of the water is not on the coast. We have to find the means and the will to move it."

    Such talk alarms people outside the Tampa Bay area who know all too well that pumping groundwater out of Pasco and Hillsborough counties dried up wetlands, encouraged sinkholes and undermined buildings. Fears of the same fate have driven Hernando and Citrus officials to promise a war if the Tampa Bay region tries to divert any of their water.

    "My cold dead body will be lying in the right of way before they put the pipe in," state Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, said last year of one such project.

    State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, added: "They are not going to turn other counties into the same devastated wasteland that they did Pasco County. It's kind of burn-and-leave policy."

    To outward appearances, the region should be less desperate for water starting this year. In the fall, a new water treatment plant will come online, processing surface water from the Hillsborough and Alafia rivers and the Tampa Bypass Canal when high flows make excess water available. During peak flow periods, the plant will be able to produce as much as 66-million gallons of drinking water a day.

    A year from now, the desal plant under construction on Tampa Bay in Hillsborough County, Desal I, will begin delivering 25-million gallons of drinking water a day.

    Three years later, a new reservoir will begin operating, ensuring that the water treatment plant will be able to guarantee 66-million gallons a day, regardless of river flows.

    But this new water will not be net additions to public supply. Pumping permits held by Tampa Bay Water limit the average daily take from 11 regional well fields to 158-million gallons a day. In January 2003, that limit will fall to 121-million gallons a day, then to 90-million gallons a day a few years later.

    Large quantities of the new water will replace lost groundwater, an effort to allow at least some environmental damage to heal.

    So why not just keep putting up desal plants until we have all the water we need?

    Because the odds against even one more facility are formidable.

    The cost could be three times the $110-million price tag on the first desal plant. Construction alone is estimated at $204-million. That is in part because gulf water has a significantly higher salt content than water in the bay, making it more expensive to desalinate.

    Moreover, if Tampa Bay Water decides to lay the intake and discharge pipes miles offshore, a plan under consideration as a way to safeguard the onshore ecology, it will add another $123-million to the project, for a total of $327-million.

    Combined with projects under way now, the cost of Desal II could add almost $17 to the monthly water bills of even the smallest residential users. And that $17 is only for the water itself. It doesn't include the cost of operating and maintaining facilities.

    The Gulf of Mexico plant carries environmental questions that do not have nearly the same history of study or depth of understanding as the site on Tampa Bay.

    There is no outside financial help on the horizon to help defray the costs. The contributions of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, covered most of the capital cost of Desal I. But the region's water regulator might not be able to step up to the plate again because it has responsibilities to fund new water projects elsewhere, particularly south of Tampa Bay.

    "We've been polling the community, and we're finding resistance to price," Maxwell said. "When asked if the amount of their water bills affects use, more than 50 percent of the people say yes. It used to be in the 30s. As prices continue to increase, you'll see those yes answers rise to 70 percent.

    "The biggest impact would be on people on fixed incomes and strapped. They tend to be elderly, retired or socioeconomically disadvantaged. You're just laying in an additional economic burden on these people."

    A growing school of thought has it that price is a good way to promote conservation, that people are more judicious about using a commodity when the rate of consumption hits their wallets. Moreover, many jurisdictions have special, lower rates for the disadvantaged.

    But Tampa Bay Water knows from experience that there will be adverse reactions to the gulf coast desal project, wherever it is sited, from people who don't want it in their neighborhoods. Adding a second population of opposition -- those who object to the cost -- will only make the project more difficult.

    So is there a way out?

    Roy Harrell, a St. Petersburg attorney and the former chairman of the Swiftmud board, was instrumental in putting together the partnership agreement that rounded up the public funds eventually assigned to the first desal project.

    Harrell said he thought Tampa Bay Water should ask Swiftmud for a new partnership, Partnership II, then not be surprised if it doesn't get it.

    "They can ask, and I would encourage that they do," Harrell said. "But does Swiftmud have the will for another one? That's the question."

    The south end of Swiftmud's 16-county territory, including Sarasota and Manatee counties, has water supply problems that are different but no less critical than those in the Tampa Bay area. Some in the area sounded strong objections to all the money that Swiftmud committed here for Desal I. It would be difficult politically for board members to approve a second project here before funding projects there.

    But Sonny Vergara, executive director of Swiftmud, said the prospects aren't hopeless.

    "No one has formally mentioned Partnership II to me, although I am aware of the interest in it," Vergara said. "I fully expect that there will be a dialogue. The two areas aren't mutually exclusive. The question is, after projects are funded down south, how much will be left for the Tampa Bay region?"

    Maxwell has a different perspective.

    "Sixty-five percent of the taxes collected by Swiftmud come from our three counties," he said. "And that's where 65 percent of the money should be spent."

    Replied Vergara, "I've heard the argument. It's not quite that simple. But even if the board prioritizes projects to the south, it's likely there would be residual funds for the Tampa Bay area. I don't think it's an unreasonable thought."

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