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    Legislature

    Water drilling hurts environment, Byrd says

    The House speaker wants to let municipalities veto construction of groundwater wells.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET and CRAIG PITTMAN
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 11, 2003


    TALLAHASSEE -- House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, accused of backing a bill that could devastate the Tampa Bay Water utility, said Thursday he simply is trying to protect the environment.

    Byrd said he is opposed to drilling any new water wells around Tampa Bay because he believes they suck the lakes and rivers dry.

    So he is supporting a bill that would give counties and cities a veto over any attempt by a utility -- such as Tampa Bay Water -- to stick wells in their back yard.

    "We have to stop groundwater drilling," Byrd, R-Plant City, said Thursday. "We have to go to alternate supplies. We have to look to alternate sources. The days of just going out and punching a hole in the ground and taking groundwater out and degrading the environment are over.

    "I think Tampa Bay Water needs to come to grips with the fact that you can't go out and degrade the environment," Byrd said.

    But Tampa Bay Water officials say the bill Byrd is pushing will revive the water wars of the 1990s that pitted local governments against each other and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees.

    As for banning all groundwater pumping, they said that will drive up the cost of water for customers, because groundwater is the cheapest source. All the alternatives cost a lot more.

    "We've got 2.1-million customers at the end of the pipeline. Their quality of life is going to be affected by the decisions being made in Tallahassee," said Tampa Bay Water executive director Jerry Maxwell.

    Tampa Bay Water, the state's largest wholesale water utility, was created in 1998 to stop the water wars and force local governments to work together.

    Crucial to its creation was a provision that no one member government can single-handedly veto a project.

    Without that provision the utility would not have been able to build the new $110-million desalination plant in Apollo Beach, because Hillsborough County officials opposed it. The plant is expected to provide 25-million gallons of drinking water a day.

    Thanks to the desal plant and other sources, Tampa Bay Water has cut back the pumping from its well fields, which once pulled out so much water that it damaged the environment.

    But the pumping reduction has come "at a significant price: a doubling of wholesale rates," Maxwell said.

    However, the memory of that damage has created a swell of opposition to any further pumping among Pasco and east Hillsborough residents. The opposition has crystalized around a project called Cone Ranch in Hillsborough.

    The possibility of pumping 8-million gallons a day from Cone Ranch remains on a list of potential future projects for Tampa Bay Water, even though Byrd warned the utility two years ago that there would be political consequences if the board did not drop it.

    Byrd reiterated his opposition to Cone Ranch Thursday because of the risk of environmental damage, saying he "will not allow that to happen in Hillsborough County."

    At this point, though, the list is just a list, nothing more, Maxwell said: "There has been no action to move forward with Cone Ranch, and no indication that there will be any."

    Maxwell pointed out that the rest of the Florida continues to rely on groundwater.

    "The entire state is being allowed to develop groundwater," Maxwell said. "The economy of the Tampa Bay region is going to be negatively impacted by being specifically precluded from that."

    Byrd was unconcerned about fears expressed by commissioners from Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties that the bill will undermine the cooperative basis of Tampa Bay Water: "I think you kind of have to follow who's concerned, and what their water philosophy is.

    "I think you should ask the ones expressing this concern: What is your water philosophy? Is your philosophy that we should continue to dig groundwater and degrade the environment, or work in earnest for alternate sources?"

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