Capitol threatens area's water peace
By CRAIG PITTMAN, JULIE HAUSERMAN
TALLAHASSEE -- State lawmakers are taking direct aim at Tampa Bay Water with a bill the utility says could once again pit local governments against each other and revive the infamous water wars of the 1990s.
"It's going to kill us," predicted Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, a member of the Tampa Bay Water board. "This could be devastating for the future of this region."
Another Tampa Bay Water board member, Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, compared it to "a fishbone going down sideways."
Before Tampa Bay Water was created in 1998, Pinellas and other local governments spent years battling each other in court over water resources. While the wars raged, the thirsty urban areas sucked dry wetlands, lakes and rivers in rural areas, causing tremendous environmental damage.
The agreements creating Tampa Bay Water ended the legal battles. Each local government got a seat on the Tampa Bay Water board, but none could singlehandedly veto a project in its own back yard.
That has been crucial to Tampa Bay Water's success, forcing everyone to work together, Hildebrand said. She noted that its biggest project, the Apollo Beach desalination plant that recently opened, was built over Hillsborough County's objections.
But the bill that passed the House Natural Resources Committee Wednesday would throw the no-veto provision out the window.
The bill (HB 1069) is largely concerned with requiring local governments to consider the availability of water resources when permitting new development. At some point -- Tampa Bay Water lobbyist Pete Dunbar first spotted it late Tuesday -- the latest version of the bill picked up a sentence that says local governments can veto groundwater pumping projects proposed within their boundaries by a water supply authority.
"That certainly stands the whole cooperative effort on its ear," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Kathy Castor, a Tampa Bay Water board member.
Dunbar warned the House committee that this would doom any attempts by Tampa Bay Water to build a new project and ultimately unravel its cooperative arrangement. The committee passed it anyway, and the bill now goes to the House. A Senate companion bill does not contain the same language.
Hildebrand and other Tampa Bay Water officials blamed the change in the bill on House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, who two years ago threatened the utility if its members pursued a controversial water-pumping project in his district.
"I think the speaker might be trying to send a message," Castor said.
At a June 2001 Tampa Bay Water board meeting, Byrd warned board members there would be political consequences if they did not drop a project called Cone Ranch from their list of future water sources.
"We'll be watching," he said then.
Cone Ranch, in eastern Hillsborough County, remains on a list of future projects to be considered at this month's Tampa Bay Water board meeting.
Utility officials put it on the list because they believe they could pump 8-million gallons of water a day from underneath the ranch. But the ranch is in an area already hurt by past overpumping, and a further drawdown could harm the Hillsborough River, the principal water source for Tampa.
Byrd did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday. The bill's sponsor, Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, said Byrd had approved it.
By allowing local governments to veto projects such as Cone Ranch, he said, "we're forcing the development of alternative water sources."
Latvala said Russell's bill is only one of two threats to the future of Tampa Bay Water. The other is a bill in the Senate that Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, amended Tuesday to require the utility to pay homeowners living near the new 15-billion gallon reservoir for the loss of their property values.
"We have a reservoir that is potentially going to adversely impact these property owners in the surrounding area and the entity responsible for the reservoir, Tampa Bay Water, has refused to acknowledge the impact," Lee said.
Lee, a home builder, said he believes the reservoir will make it difficult if not impossible for people in the area to sell their homes. The risk of a breach is probably minimal, Lee said, but "home buyers needn't accept even the most minimal risk. I think it will depress home values in the properties around that reservoir."
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire