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Hillsborough County officials worry about what a boost in status for two water resources might cost.
By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published December 14, 2007
TAMPA -- Any elected official would love to brag the water in his or her district is "good enough to drink."
Yet on Thursday, Hillsborough County commissioners pooh-poohed the idea that the Alafia River and the Tampa Bypass Canal should meet this standard, the state's highest water classification.
The Tampa Bay Water utility wants to raise the status of the two rivers, which provide up to 189-million gallons a day toward the region's drinking water supply, to that top level. Commissioners said they didn't oppose that plan, but they did want to make tweaks to the application to better reflect their concerns that the higher standard would cost Hillsborough more.
For instance, they said a wastewater plant in Valrico might have to shut down if the status of the Alafia is changed. And phosphate companies and agricultural interests might have to spend millions to follow new pollution rules that accompany the new classification.
"This is a veiled attempt to really nail us with what could be millions and millions of dollars," said Commissioner Jim Norman.
"We're getting the brunt of dollar costs and giving the water away," said Commissioner Brian Blair.
Tampa Bay Water officials attended Thursday's meeting but said nothing. Later, the utility's general counsel, Richard Lotspeich, said many of the county's concerns were misguided or misinformed. The wastewater plant won't be threatened, and the utility will reimburse agricultural interests for any land loss from the change.
Changing the classification, Lotspeich said, comes down to whether officials want to ensure that the rivers remain of top quality or "Do you want to dispose waste in it?"
Tampa Bay Water draws from the Alafia River and the Tampa Bypass Canal to help quench the thirst of 2.5-million customers in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. Yet both bodies of water are classified by Florida's Department of Environmental Protection as having water that's only suitable enough for recreation and fish and wildlife.
Because they already meet drinking water standards, the Alafia and Bypass Canal should have official drinking water status, Tampa Bay Water says. Tougher rules accompanying this designation would help prevent future degradation, they say.
"Protecting these drinking water sources is clearly in the public interest," a report by the utility stated. "Reclassification will protect the water quality for the future."
With the Tampa Bay Water board set to vote Monday on sending a request for the upgrade to the Department of Environmental Protection, Hillsborough commissioners voted to weigh in.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham's district includes land used by large phosphate and agricultural interests upstream from the Alafia. He said he felt snubbed by the utility.
"I know when I'm getting the runaround," he said.
Commissioners asked Tampa Bay Water to amend its application so it would address more accurate data on how much it will cost the county and major landowners. They asked the utility to guarantee that, if there are additional costs from the status change, they be shared by all of the governments served by the utility. Norman said he wants a written guarantee that Hillsborough won't bear all the costs.
But Lotspeich said the utility has worked with the major players, including phosphate companies such as Mosaic. He said if they can show how this change will cost them, the utility will talk about compensation.
"They have to identify the costs," he said. "Please tell us."
That offer didn't impress Hillsborough's project manager for the water resource team.
"Determining what this will cost is their burden," said Mario Cabana. "That's their job."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3402.
[Last modified December 14, 2007, 00:51:10]