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Utility sued to cut water consumption

Aloha Utilities says it cannot comply with Swiftmud pumping limits without higher rates or cutting off customers' water.

By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 24, 2002

DADE CITY -- The regional water district sued west Pasco's Aloha Utilities on Monday to stop it from pumping about 1-million a day from wells. The suit claims the pumping harms the environment.

Aloha's attorney, F. Marshall Deterding, said he doesn't know what the Southwest Florida Water Management District wants the utility to do short of cutting off service. The water is sold in the Seven Springs area.

The district authority, commonly known as Swiftmud, sued in Circuit Court in Dade City demanding Aloha operate within an agreement the two sides hammered out in February.

Aloha's service district is divided into two areas: Seven Springs and Aloha Gardens. The utility provides water to a little more than 9,000 customers in southwest Pasco County, including the Trinity area.

According to Swiftmud, Aloha has permission to pump an average of 2.04-million gallons per day from its eight west Pasco wells to supply 24,452 customers. But the utility is pumping more than 1-million gallons per day more than it is allowed, the lawsuit contends.

Deterding says the utility is being squeezed. Swiftmud insists Aloha stop pumping, and the only alternative is to buy water from Pasco County, Deterding said. To do that, Aloha needs a rate increase, and the state Public Service Commission denied the utility's requested 57-percent rate increase in April.

Deterding said Aloha has two choices, keep pumping or stop producing.

"I don't know what they expect us to do other than turn off the tap," Deterding said. "They know there is no alternative."

Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan said the issue is simple. Aloha officials signed a consent agreement in February promising to stay within the permitted amounts. They haven't lived up to their agreement. Therefore, Swiftmud is taking court action, he said.

Swiftmud is seeking $100 per day fines and an order forcing Aloha to comply with the permit.

According to Swiftmud's lawsuit, Aloha's pumping is causing environmental problems.

"Groundwater withdrawals have resulted in the lowering of lake levels, destruction or deterioration of wetlands, reduction in stream flow, and salt water intrusion," the lawsuit contends.

The consent agreement also shows Aloha hasn't held its pumping to within permitted levels since 1995.

Deterding said the utility is researching desalination as a possible alternative and expects the results of a feasibility study by spring. But in the meantime, without a rate increase the utility can't pay the anticipated $100,000 per month it would likely take to buy water from the county.

Aloha president Stephen Watford said he found Swiftmud's lawsuit interesting, because by his reading of the existing agreement between the two, Aloha's cut in pumping was to coincide with rate increases to pay the cost of buying Pasco water. He said Swiftmud seems to ignore that aspect.

"We can't pull money out of thin air," Deterding said. "They know we're between a rock and a hard place. We'll be in court pretty quickly; hopefully, we'll get a judge who will see the realities."

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