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No easy solution to water dispute

Florida Water Services and the county can't agree on how to fix the problem of low water pressure, leaving customers stuck in the middle and threatening future development.

By WILL VAN SANT
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002


SPRING HILL -- Hernando County has made no secret of its desire to one day incorporate the Florida Water Services system in Spring Hill into its own utility network.

Success in that effort has seemed increasingly remote over the past year as the parties have been locked in bitter legal duels over the county's refusal to allow the company to drill new wells and the proposed sale of the utility to two Panhandle towns.

Throughout these battles, county officials have publicly questioned whether the company was artificially lowering water pressure in the system for some nefarious purpose, perhaps to prompt complaints from residents that would lead to a reconsideration of the decision not to allow well drilling.

Ask county officials what proof they have of such shenanigans, now or in the past, however, and they are at a loss.

"We don't have any evidence," Assistant County Attorney Kent Weissinger said last week.

The state Department of Environmental Protection was engaged in hands-on monitoring of the system at the height of the dry season last spring, when complaints about low pressure were rampant. Agency officials doubt the pressure problems they saw could be contrived.

"I don't know how you would go about doing it," said Jeff Greenwell, an engineer and head of the drinking water division at the DEP's Tampa office. "A coordinated effort would be out of all bounds of reason."

It should be said that posturing has come from both sides. Florida Water has questioned whether the county's refusal to allow new wells is an attempt to depress the system's value in order to buy it at below-market cost, a concern that an attorney for the company described as "perhaps paranoia on our part."

When not stirred up and making allegations, county officials promptly admit that pressure problems in the system are very real. A study paid for by the county as part of an effort to put a price tag on the utility concluded just that. What the two sides disagree on, and what's likely to fuel further conflict, is how to solve the problem.

At stake is not only the power that comes with control of water resources, but future development in Spring Hill. Recently, the application of one developer to connect with the utility was denied by DEP regulators concerned that the system could not handle any additional drain.

Water quality and its impact on public health also is an issue, according to state officials. Low pressure makes water in pipes susceptible to bacterial contamination. Last spring, as water in the system consistently fell below the regulatory standard of 20 pounds per square inch, the DEP was testing for contamination and prepared to issue orders to boil water in the area.

Bacterial levels did not rise high enough last spring to prompt such action, but without a solution to the pressure problem it may just be a matter of time.

"We were fortunate not to have any public health issues," DEP's Greenwell said.

More wells? Bigger pipes?

Florida Water purchased the Spring Hill utility in 1988 from the Deltona Corp., which began construction of the system in the 1960s to serve its development in Hernando County.

Today, the utility has 19 water supply wells, the last drilled in 1996.

Since that time the population of Spring Hill has leapt almost 19 percent, from 66,963 in 1997, according to county Planning Department estimates, to 79,424 this year. During the same period, the average monthly output of the utility grew from 295,200,000 gallons to 390,800,000 gallons, an increase of more than 32 percent, according to figures from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which regulates the utility's impact on the Floridan aquifer.

Florida Water has long maintained that the pressure problems can best be addressed by drilling new wells; county officials have balked, saying rerouting and enlarging delivery pipes will do the trick.

According to Jeff Trommer, a hydrogeologist with Leggette, Brashears & Graham hired by Florida Water, when the utility is operating at peak capacity -- as it was in May when it pumped a record 561,700,000 gallons -- pressure problems persist.

In fact, the company received a record number of complaints from customers in May.

"If you have all your wells pumping at capacity around the clock and you are still having pressure problems, it does not matter what size piping you have," Trommer said. "You need more water in the system."

Though Florida Water has Swiftmud's approval to build up to six new wells, county officials have balked at granting the necessary zoning changes. One proposed well has been caught in limbo since the late 1990s.

In February and March, the County Commission denied the company zoning approvals to drill three other wells that would have served the area of the utility system most prone to pressure problems, the southeast section, which is the fastest growing part of Spring Hill.

The decisions came after bitter public hearings during which residents voiced concerns about possible links between well drilling and sinkholes, as well as the impact new wells would have on their property values.

In May, at the height of the dry season, when both the company and the county were being hit by a flurry of pressure complaints, representatives and utility experts from both camps met to choose a course of action.

According to an affidavit witnessed by several Florida Water employees who attended the meeting and filed in the continuing legal dispute between the parties, it was agreed that the best course of action was to drill the three wells the county had denied. The affidavit states that county staffers decided to advise the County Commission to reconsider its zoning decisions, as the three well sites were the most appropriate and beneficial that could be found.

Later in the day, according to a transcript of a voice mail message filed as part of the affidavit, county utilities and franchise director Chuck Lewis called Dave Denny, vice president of operations and maintenance at Florida Water. Both men attended the meeting.

"We talked with the county attorney and a couple of other people that are highly involved in the well litigation," Lewis is quoted as telling Denny in the transcript. "We confirmed it would be political suicide to ask the board to bring back the rezoning."

Lewis was not available for comment.

County Attorney Garth Coller first called the transcript "absolutely bogus," saying he would "love to hear" a copy of the voice mail message.

When asked whether he denied speaking to Lewis after the meeting and using the term "political suicide" in conjunction with the idea of the commission hearing the zoning issue again, Coller said he had spoken to Lewis and had used such language.

However, Coller said, he did not mean that commissioners could jeopardize their relationship with a large segment of Spring Hill voters by reconsidering their decision, but instead would have compromised their authority.

"It has to do with giving up your jurisdiction," Coller said. "The board is going to commit political suicide if they give up the right to say no."

Development worries

Among the most recent chapters in the ongoing well saga, which is foundering in the courts with no foreseeable resolution, are fears in some quarters that the water pressure problems will bring development in Spring Hill to a halt.

The DEP recently denied an application by developers of the Wellington subdivision to connect planned units to the utility, citing further burdens on the system.

At the moment, four similar connection applications are before the DEP. If those and future applications are denied and development stopped, it won't be the fault of the agency. The DEP says it will likely issue connection permits that are contingent on Florida Water and the county making progress on solving the pressure problem.

"It's their issue," the DEP's Greenwell said.

As to whether drilling wells or a reconfiguration of the system and enlarging distribution pipes is the answer, Greenwell takes a balanced approach.

"From an engineering perspective, there are always multiple solutions to a problem," he said. "But it goes without saying that as your population grows, you are going to need to get more water into the system."

With each day that the parties continue the feud and no solution is found, the dry season gets closer.

This spring, it could mean more than just toilets that do not flush and trickling shower heads. People may have to boil what water they can get from their pipes to avoid getting sick.

-- Will Van Sant covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansant@sptimes.com .

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