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When the issue is water, group has a long memory

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

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003

The same day a long-dormant east Pasco environmental group reactivated, the head of the water management district indicated there may be no need to do so.

A serendipitous moment? Probably. Fashioning public remarks to placate a lobbying group you don't even know exists is just too conspiratorial for our thinking.

Still, it likely will be the last thing left to coincidental chance regarding groundwater in east Pasco.

Tuesday, Gene Heath, interim director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, talked to Pasco County commissioners with members of the newly reorganized Coalition to Save East Pasco, known as CoSEP, listening in the audience.

The worry is water, specifically untapped water sitting beneath farms and industrial sites in Pasco and Hillsborough counties. A consortium of east Pasco property owners formed the Water Group to broker the commodity. They believe they own surplus because they are not pumping the maximum allowed under permits issued by the water management district.

Their pitch is local control, but it's a rationalization for greed.

Tampa Bay Water, the regional water supplier to nearly 2-million people in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey, already has come calling as it maps out potential long-term sources of water through 2015.

That's what kick started CoSEP. It doesn't want new groundwater pumping in Pasco or Hillsborough considering the 1998 agreement that created Tampa Bay Water requires a 40 percent reduction in groundwater pumping in central Pasco County by 2007.

Five years is a long time by Florida standards. Figure a minimum of 30,000 people have moved to Pasco County since 1998, the last time groundwater pumping was in the public conscious beyond Rhonda Storm's parochial chirpings about Cone Ranch.

So we asked the water warriors of the past: Have people forgotten the dry private wells, lake shores that are more shore than lake, thousands of acres of damaged wetlands, sinkholes, collapsed trees and other environmental ills attributed to groundwater pumping in central Pasco?

"Absolutely," said Gilliam Clarke, of Quail Hollow, one of the most outspoken water activists, who was sued by Pinellas County and then ran unsuccessfully for the state Legislature. "And it's a shame. You've really got to be vigilant about what goes on in your neighborhood."

"They've never put in a single well field where they have not caused adverse environmental impacts," said the equally outspoken Judy Williams of Lutz. "Some people have forgotten, but you can not let them continue to rape Pasco."

Neither is involved in CoSEP, which originated in the early 1990s to combat a proposed natural gas pipeline, moved on to the water issue, but eventually became dormant.

Pat Carver of Dade City, one of the people reactivating the group, doesn't believe the public has a dull memory of the environmental devastation. But she concedes, "We got caught sleeping."

Tampa Bay Water documents from May 2001 identified groundwater in east Pasco as a potential source for the future.

"It just didn't speak to me. I never followed up," Carver said.

The follow up is under way in earnest, and not just by Carver.

State Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, volunteered he is about to introduce a comprehensive water bill in Tallahassee that will include reinforcing prohibitions against transferring excess water permit capacity.

Sharon Blanchard of the Little Everglades Ranch has retained water lawyer Fred Reeves to protect her interests even though another member of the family is in the Water Group.

Blanchard and Carver were in the commission meeting Tuesday as Heath said the water district hasn't been asked to allow water for agricultural use to be siphoned away for public water supply.

"That's not the way it was designed and set up for," Heath said.

He chose his words carefully, saying the big picture requires determining east Pasco's water needs for the next 20 years. But he certainly left commissioners and CoSEP with the impression that increasing the reliance on groundwater is remote, particularly in light of the $183-million spent to find alternative sources.

Tampa Bay Water, however, could argue that is precisely why groundwater makes sense. It is cheaper to pump than to build plants that take the salt out of seawater.

Just try telling that to the owners of what used to be lakefront property.

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