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A bend in river cleanup
The region's water utility fears the proposal will cut into drinking water supplies.
By JANET ZINK
Published June 15, 2007
TAMPA - A $40-million plan to boost the quality of the Hillsborough River might face a challenge from the region's water utility, which fears the plan could cut into drinking water supplies for Tampa Bay residents.
The staff of Tampa Bay Water will ask its board Monday to fight the plan, which includes adding freshwater from the Tampa Bypass Canal to the Hillsborough River to make it more hospitable for fish and wildlife.
But Tampa Bay Water's plan to meet the region's drinking water demand counts on the water from the bypass canal, said Jerry Maxwell, general manager of the agency, which provides water to Tampa, St. Petersburg, New Port Richey and Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
That water has "been bought and paid for, " Maxwell said. "If you take it away, it has to be replaced."
The challenge, which would put the matter before an administrative law judge, is the strongest criticism to date of a proposal that will be paid for in part by Tampa water customers and has been eyed skeptically by environmental groups and neighborhood associations. Even the city - which worked with state water managers for a year on the proposal - has questions about the final product.
"They do bring issues we need to address, " said Dave Moore, head of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, which crafted the proposal to help the city meet state requirements.
Moore said he hoped the problems could be solved in a way that satisfies environmental and water supply concerns.
The plan calls for spending $40-million to bring water from a variety of sources to the river.
Water would be diverted from Sulphur Springs to the river, and an old clogged sinkhole in North Tampa, called Blue Sink, would be cleaned out and pumped to provide water. Swiftmud also wants to build a pipe from the Tampa Bypass Canal to the Hillsborough River to replace a system that loses large amounts of water to evaporation.
And, finally, the plan would bring water from the lower part of the bypass canal to the river.
City getting a bargain
That last item is what troubles Tampa Bay Water. It says it needs the water to meet demands of all member governments, including Tampa, which buys water from the utility in dry times. For most of the year, the city gets nearly all of its drinking water at a bargain-basement price from a reservoir on the Hillsborough River.
Maxwell has a different idea how Tampa should solve the problem: release water from the Hillsborough River reservoir into the lower river, and then buy drinking water from the utility.
Like the Swiftmud plan, Maxwell's would require Tampa to increase water rates, but he believes it's a fairer approach.
When Tampa Bay Water was created in 1998, he said, other members of the utility "paid dearly" by becoming part of a regional water distribution plan designed to protect groundwater. Tampa received a special deal because of its reservoir; it wasn't depleting in-ground supplies.
"The city of Tampa dodged the bullet, " Maxwell said.
Now, though, the city has its own environmental issues and should do what the other jurisdictions have done: buy water from the regional supplier.
At least one of Tampa Bay Water's nine board members likes Maxwell's idea.
"I would prefer the city to go ahead and purchase the water from Tampa Bay Water, to allow the water to flow, rather than have this pumping option, " said Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "I don't believe that it is the best strategy, and that's what we're looking for."
City questions plan
Tampa officials say Maxwell's plan won't work because the utility doesn't have the infrastructure to meet the city's needs.
Yet they still share some of Tampa Bay Water's concerns about taking water from the bypass canal to help the river.
"It looks good and sounds good on paper. I don't know if it works yet, " said Steve Daignault, the city's administrator for utilities and public works.
Critics have also targeted other pieces of the plan.
Residents in North Tampa worry that pulling water from Blue Sink will lower their lake levels. "The people in the area have become very super, super sensitive whenever anything happens to the lakes, " said Ellen Wilson, secretary of the North Forest Hills Neighborhood Association.
Friends of the River is an advocacy group that has been fighting for seven years to get more freshwater in the lower Hillsborough River. The group originally opposed Swiftmud's plan, saying construction of pipes would take years - too long to get water to the river.
Friends of the River also first raised the concept, later embraced by Maxwell, of releasing water from the reservoir and turning to Tampa Bay Water to meet Tampa's demands.
But after learning the utility was considering a legal challenge, Friends of the River reversed course and put its support behind Swiftmud.
Any challenge will "delay improving the health of the river for who knows how long, " said Friends founder John Ovink. "Would we have wanted more? Yes. Do we believe we can get more? No."
The city of Temple Terrace is also weighing in. A newly created river task force last month questioned Moore about Swiftmud's plans for the river. Concerned that their riverfront neighborhoods haven't been fairly considered by the agency, the Temple Terrace City Council asked Gov. Charlie Crist to include someone from the city on Swiftmud's governing board.
Moore stands by the river rescue plan. But plans to take it to the Swiftmud board for approval in June have been delayed until August to allow more time to consider details.
"The more people understand it, " Moore said, "the more they're comfortable with it."