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    A Times Editorial

    Playing politics with water

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


    The record drought punishing Tampa Bay has intruded into St. Petersburg's mayoral race. Rather than calling for calm and cooperation in meeting the city's water challenge, however, candidates Kathleen Ford, Larry Williams and Patrick Bailey have tried to exploit the situation for political gain.

    Each gives tepid support, at best, to Tampa Bay Water, the tri-county authority that is working to expand the water supply. Each proposes dubious water projects that if attempted, could reignite the water wars of years past, when governments in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties wasted millions of dollars suing each other.

    St. Petersburg's mayor represents the city at Tampa Bay Water, an agency Ford distrusts. She sees regional cooperation as little more than a stopgap until the state takes over water issues, allowing crowded urban areas such as St. Petersburg to seek distant water sources. That idea has no apparent support in Tallahassee. Given Ford's disdain for the water authority and her pugnacious style, she would add volatility to a board that already has a member -- Hillsborough County -- retreating into self-interest.

    As a council member, Williams voted against every step to form Tampa Bay Water; now he says, "We've got to make it work." Yet Williams' solution is to pump in water from the middle of the state, an unrealistic (and currently illegal) plan. Bailey doesn't have a clue about why Tampa Bay Water was formed and how it works. As a political neophyte, he at least has an excuse.

    Ford is floating the idea of bottling Weeki Wachee Spring water and selling it, something like Perrier's controversial operations at Crystal Springs. The concept is fraught with so many political, legal, economic and environmental pitfalls that it is hard to take seriously.

    Bailey seems to think St. Petersburg can build its own desalination plant. He ignores the fact that Tampa Bay Water will spend six years and $95-million to get its desalination plant up and running. That would be a foolish risk for a city acting on its own.

    Ford has been most irresponsible in raising a false issue designed to scare gullible residents. She is saying that the water authority is planning to use Tampa's treated wastewater as a drinking water source. It's not true. While that possibility was once raised for discussion, it didn't pass the "yuck factor" and is no longer on the table. In fact, Tampa plans to use its reclaimed water just as St. Petersburg does, for lawn watering.

    Give Ford credit for proposing some strict conservation measures, including a possible building moratorium. But her simplistic solutions that would undermine Tampa Bay Water are misguided, counterproductive and likely to spark expensive litigation.

    The fact is St. Petersburg cannot go it alone on water. The city no longer owns its three well fields (two in Hillsborough and one in Pasco), but even if it did, they would not produce enough water to serve its future needs. In 2003, those wells will be allowed to pump a maximum 26 MGD (million gallons per day), while the city used 36 MGD last year -- leading to a daily shortfall of 10-million gallons that will only get worse.

    Instead of hurling reckless criticism, Ford and the other candidates should be thanking current Mayor David Fischer for the key role he played in creating Tampa Bay Water. Yes, the cost of water will rise, but not as much as it would if St. Petersburg was on its own.

    Far from being misguided, Tampa Bay Water "is a national model," said Fischer. "Other areas are very envious of what we are doing." That sounds a lot different from the doom and gloom some mayoral candidates are spreading. St. Petersburg voters should be skeptical of easy fixes to complex problems.

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