Tampa, water utility argue over replenishing river

Solving the Hillsborough River's environmental crisis is likely to bring higher water rates.

Published May 13, 2007

TAMPA - A battle is brewing that pits the city of Tampa against Tampa Bay Water, the agency created about a decade ago to end the region's water wars.

The problem: Because of a lawsuit, Tampa needs to more than double the amount of water flowing into the lower Hillsborough River to protect wildlife.

But the Tampa Bay Water utility says part of the plan to solve the river's environmental crisis will cut into its ability to supply water to the region.

"We're scrambling all over the place to get water, " said Steve Daignault, the city's director of public works and utilities. "So is everybody else right now."

Both the city and Tampa Bay Water - which supplies Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, St. Petersburg, New Port Richey and sometimes Tampa - warn of legal challenges and lawsuits.

In the end, though, Tampa residents, who enjoy the lowest water rates in the region, will soon be paying more to water their lawns, fill their pools and wash their cars.

Tampa gets most of its drinkable water from a reservoir above the Hillsborough River dam.

Seven years ago, officials in Tampa and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, determined that 10 cubic feet of water per second - about 6-million gallons a day - need to flow through the dam to the lower river to keep fish and plants alive.

The nonprofit group Friends of the River said it wasn't enough to support snook, baby manatees and other wildlife. The group sued and settled for a five-year study.

Swiftmud released the results of the study in 2005. After initially balking, the city agreed to supply 20 cubic feet of water per second for most of the year and 24 from April through June.

Now, Swiftmud and the city have a plan for meeting that requirement, which has pulled Tampa Bay Water into the mix.

Among other things, the $40-million, five-year plan calls for building a pipe from the Tampa Bypass Canal to take water from the canal to the lower river.

Daignault says it will require increasing Tampa water rates, but he doesn't know how much.

Right now, because Tampa has its own water supply in the Hillsborough River, city water users enjoy the lowest rates in the region, paying about a third as much as other customers.

Tampa Bay Water argues the Swiftmud plan could take 1-billion gallons of water from the regional water supply.

Paula Dye, project manager for Tampa Bay Water, says her agency is fine with the plan's call to dedicate 11 cubic feet of water per second to the river.

"The way that they actually implement it might be more of a problem, " she said. "The concern that we have is that there isn't always 11 cubic feet per second of flow."

Tampa Bay Water is last in line to take water from the Bypass Canal and the Hillsborough River. The city gets it first. The utility can take water only during the rainy season, when both bodies swell.

Tampa Bay Water worries that during dry times, the city will have to mine groundwater from the canal to get the needed allotment for the river, and it will take four to six weeks longer for the canal to reach a level where the utility can take water for thirsty customers.

Tampa Bay Water is weighing its options. A legal challenge is possible, said Richard Lotspeich, general counsel for the agency.

David Moore, executive director of Swiftmud, says the utility is overestimating the impact of the plan.

Tampa Bay Water needs to step up to the plate and be willing to sacrifice a little for the river, he said.

"That water will be used for the environment first. And when the environment doesn't need it, Tampa Bay Water can take it, " Moore said. "We've done everything we can to meet the needs of the water suppliers" while meeting the needs of the river.

"It's a pretty doggone good plan, " Moore said.

But Friends of the River isn't so sure.

"The most elegant option is to release water at the dam, " said Rich Brown, a member of Friends of the River and an engineer who worked on water quality issues for the Navy. "You just turn a button, crank the gate open. You can start that tomorrow. There's no permits, no $40-million in infrastructure, digging holes, tearing up streets and sidewalks."

City officials say the Friends of the River proposal to simply let water flow through the dam isn't an option, physically or legally.

Daignault said the city doesn't have a connection to the Tampa Bay Water system capable of providing all the water the city needs. And city attorneys say Tampa's agreement with the utility requires Tampa to use all the water it can from the river - its permit allows 82-million gallons per day - before calling on Tampa Bay Water for more.

Tampa Bay Water officials dispute the city's arguments.

The agreement with the utility, said Lotspeich, doesn't require Tampa to reach the limit of its permit from the river - only that it use what it can from the river before buying water.

Physically, increasing purchases from Tampa Bay Water is impossible today. But the utility is building a connection that would accommodate increased sales to the city. It will cost the city $2-million and be ready in March.

Meanwhile, the river waits.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or 813 226-3401.