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Money is new weapon in region's water wars

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By C. T. BOWEN, Pasco Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 1, 2002

The rules of engagement are changing.

The Tampa Bay region's never-ending skirmish over the public water supply is no longer about environmental preservation, new sources or old allies. The battlefield now is the bottom line.

A consortium of east Pasco landowners is seeking a partnership with Dade City in order to sell water from their land. And you thought new pumping from Pasco was a thing of the past?

The Water Group doesn't. It wants to take water that is intended for agricultural use and profit. Giving first dibs to Dade City isn't even a prerequisite. The group plans to offer it to Tampa Bay Water, the regional water utility and the agency traditionally portrayed as the villain in the water wars.

The Water Group, though, needs a local government to participate to hedge against Tampa Bay Water's condemning land in east Pasco to get the water absent the owners' approval. That's where Dade City comes in. In exchange for acting as the Water Group's paper partner, Dade City gets 10 percent of the proceeds.

Incidentally, you can't blame Dade City for jumping at this deal. For little effort, it gets either water for its future growth or a financial windfall.

The Water Group says this is about local control. Translation: This is about bargaining position and how much money the Water Group can negotiate from Tampa Bay Water.

Now, is Tampa Bay Water blameless here? Heck no. If it hadn't been sniffing around east Pasco looking for a place to sink the next straw, you wouldn't have individual landowners banding together to try to bargain for a better deal.

A Tampa Bay Water spokesman said the agency simply is investigating long-term water sources for use after 2015.

The use seems more immediate, particularly in light of Tampa Bay Water's seeking out Dade City and other landowners as early as the spring. Some suspect the groundwater in east Pasco will be used as an alternative to a second desalination plant presumed to be built at Anclote in southwest Pasco County.

Alternative sources have dominated the water debate in the past few years because the 1998 agreement creating Tampa Bay Water mandates a 40 percent cut in groundwater pumping from Pasco County by 2007. The pumping cuts, though, are from Tampa Bay Water's central system -- the current well fields located mostly in central Pasco County. Taking water from east Pasco ranchers sidesteps that requirement.

Clearly the spirit of the 1998 contract is being flaunted. That is unfortunate. Apparently, people have forgotten the boisterous lobbying, the lawsuits and the political fighting over dwindling lakes and dry wetlands in east and central Pasco and northern Hillsborough counties.

"From a political standpoint, we took our stand and said, 'Hands off Pasco County,' " said Ed Collins, the former county commissioner who represented Pasco on Tampa Bay Water.

It is a political stand likely to be repeated. Just ask Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, current chairman of Tampa Bay Water.

Is more groundwater destined to leave Pasco County, particularly if a second desalination plant is delayed?

"Over my dead body," said Hildebrand.

There is water to be had in eastern Pasco (and other locations) because ranchers, Pasco Beverage and other concerns are not using as much groundwater as the Southwest Florida Water Management District allows. So there is a movement afoot to pump to the maximum and sell the excess water to other concerns.

Pasco County most likely will object if landowners apply to the water management district to alter their pumping permits.

The concern is understandable. That water is earmarked for growing and processing agricultural products. It is a beneficial use, contributing to the food chain and returing water to the aquifer at the site from which it is pumped. It is not intended to be piped out of the area to help keep somebody else's Floratam green.

There is a simple solution. The Southwest Florida Water Management District can quash this by refusing to allow permit holders to sell their excess capacity.

"It might be something to look at legislatively," volunteered state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

An interesting proposition, considering the water district takes direction from a board appointed by Fasano's pal Gov. Jeb Bush.

Like we said, the rules of engagement are changing.

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