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Looking for water, losing trust

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

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2002

Jerry Maxwell is mining for water.

That's his job. The chief of Tampa Bay Water is charged with finding enough water to quench the thirst of a growing region while reducing the reliance on groundwater pumping in environmentally stressed central Pasco County.

But looking to tap other parts of Pasco for future groundwater makes no political sense. Then again, nobody ever said political sensibility translated into good public policy, particularly when the topic is water.

Maxwell, speaking before Pasco County commissioners this week, laid out his search plan. There are 11 projects identified as potential sources of water to serve the area beginning in 2008, but the one that has everyone buzzing is known as "surplus co-use interconnection."

That's bureaucratic lingo for buying groundwater from farmers and industries who don't use all to which they are entitled. In Pasco County, there is the potential to tap 26-million gallons a day, or more than enough to fill the whale tank at Orlando Sea World's Shamu stadium five times daily. Hillsborough County is even more bountiful, with 39-million gallons a day.

Tampa Bay Water's central system well fields, serving nearly 2-million people in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties and the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey, are permitted to produce as much as 158-million gallons a day. That is to be cut to 121-million by the first of the year when a new desalination plant comes on line and to 90-million gallons in 2008.

Earlier this week, the wells pumped 68-million gallons. Maxwell called that a sign of tremendous progress. He said this with a straight face.

His boast coincided with the El Nino-triggered storms that produced record rainfalls. Who needs to turn on the sprinklers when there's 5 inches of rain falling?

It was one of the many signals of skepticism, if not outright distrust. Here's another:

A group of landowners in northeast Pasco who are not using all their allowable water banded together in order to negotiate as a single entity with Tampa Bay Water or other buyers.

Maxwell said Tampa Bay Water is exploring voluntary deals for surplus water. The east Pasco landowners, known collectively as the Water Group, invited Dade City to come on board to preclude a hostile takeover. Having a municipal government as a partner makes it more difficult for Tampa Bay Water to condemn the ranchers' land to get the untapped water.

So much for believing in volunteerism.

And Commissioner Ted Schrader, one of Pasco's two representatives on the water board, wondered why Pasco County had been excluded from negotiations between Tampa Bay Water and the city of St. Petersburg over an easement along an abandoned railroad right of way west of San Antonio. Schrader suspects it is earmarked as a pipeline route to carry new water from northeast Pasco.

Not at all, assured Maxwell. It's to benefit Pasco County, which has approved seven large developments along the route, and might need it for utilities.

Aren't you skeptics ashamed? Maxwell is looking out for the best interests of Pasco County. (Yes, sarcasm intended.)

But Maxwell made valid points more subtly. The reference to seven approved developments of regional impact along the right of way? He might as well have said, "You're the ones letting thousands of new homeowners in here. Where are we supposed to get the water for them?"

He also noted the search for groundwater in east Pasco is in accordance with "local sources first," the state law that requires governmental entities to exhaust all local water sources before looking elsewhere.

Left unsaid: It was a half-baked idea that some advocated without knowing the Legislature's definition of "local." Instead of forcing Pinellas County to build its own desalination plant, as some wrongly believed would happen, the law treats the tricounty Tampa Bay area as one region, and requires it to meet its own water needs.

In other words, be careful for what you wish.

Maxwell did make one very public acknowledgement. He can count votes.

There are nine voting members on Tampa Bay Water. Hillsborough and Pasco County representatives can cast four votes opposing additional groundwater pumping as a future water source. It's hard to imagine New Port Richey Mayor Frank Park not doing likewise.

Maybe political sensibilities will win out after all.

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