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Not enough water -- or logic -- to go around

By GREG HAMILTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002

Like Alice in Wonderland, perplexed by the Mad Hatter's verbal back flips, Vicki Phillips is scratching her head over the contradictions spewing from the local water management agency.

Phillips, a knowledgeable county commissioner, is having as difficult a time as the rest of us in making sense of the Southwest Florida Water Management District's words and deeds.

The agency, known as Swiftmud, has been saying for years that we all must conserve our limited supply of water. Fair enough. Water levels are way down because of the ongoing drought, so we should do our best not to waste this resource.

In the next breath, though, the agency says that there's enough water to meet the needs of tens of thousands of people who may be moving here in the next two decades.

That includes the 4,000 or so residents of Tuscany, a projected development near Beverly Hills, that envisions "upscale" homes (translation: nice lawns and landscaping), plus two 18-hole, water-guzzling golf courses and a string of businesses.

It also includes the 70,000 platted but undeveloped lots around the county, from Citrus Springs to Sugarmill Woods, many of which will have homes and people on them by 2020.

If there is enough water for the folks who aren't even here yet, why, you might ask, is Swiftmud leaning on residents who are here now to cut back on their water use?

Phillips wonders the same thing.

"I hear that a lot," said Phillips, whose district includes Beverly Hills, where residents have been told they're using too much water. "How can we sustain another development in Beverly Hills or anywhere when there is a drought and we're under water restrictions?"

Ah, water restrictions -- another Swiftmud enigma.

Homeowners are told that if they water their lawns more than once a week, they'll be fined. That is, unless they live within the city limits of Crystal River or Inverness, in which case they can water twice a week.

That makes no sense to Phillips and others who know that the aquifer under the cities is the same one that is under the rest of the county. "Don't we all drink from the same cup?" she asks.

Then there's my personal favorite: As Swiftmud clamps down on residents, the agency allows dozens of golf courses around the district to pump millions -- millions! -- of gallons of fresh drinking water every day onto their greens.

The explanation given is that golf courses are businesses and water is essential to their investments. Homeowners, who use a fraction of that amount, do not get the same consideration when it comes to protecting their biggest investment, their property.

"It's difficult for people to accept," Phillips said. "We see our plants dying. People call and tell me, "My lawn is dying because I'm abiding by the restrictions.' . . . I can understand their concerns. They have a lot of money tied up in their lawns."

Last Tuesday, Commissioner Gary Bartell spoke to the board about preliminary talks he's had with Florida Power about a possible desalination plant in Citrus. It's way early in the process, but already the notion of alternative water sources is being raised -- by the commissioners, not Swiftmud.

Look around us and you can understand why.

To the south, Pinellas County, having paved over virtually every inch of open ground and systematically drained Pasco County's surface water and well fields, is trying to set up a desalination plant. To the north, Swiftmud is telling Suwannee County that it, too, should look for alternative sources.

Right in the middle, sitting atop the same aquifer, is Citrus County, where Swiftmud says there is plenty of water to go around.

"Suwannee has a lot more water than us and is less developed," Phillips said. "Logic goes out the window."

Constituents are grumbling loudly to Phillips and all the commissioners, but there is little the board can do. When it comes to managing water, Swiftmud, unaccountable to voters, holds all of the cards.

"The issue is one of the toughest I deal with," Phillips said. "I have to tell citizens that once the developments have been approved, my hands are tied."

Swiftmud, however, has the legal means to slow down the depletion of the water. The agency can deny the permits needed for the new developments to be served by a utility; it can also be much tougher in enforcing the permits already issued by giving overpumpers some meaningful restrictions and penalties, not just fines that are simply passed along to the customers.

In short, it can live up to its gatekeeper role.

The county commissioners on Tuesday said they want to hear some straight talk soon from Swiftmud on all of these issues.

There's a first time for everything, I suppose. Even Alice eventually was able to decipher the Mad Hatter.

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