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    Water plan splits haves, have-nots

    Opinions vary from county to county as officials get a look at a proposal by Swiftmud to offset overpumping by Tampa Bay Water.

    By DEBORAH O'NEIL and JAMES THORNER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2001


    Reaction to a regulatory order that would require local government to drastically tighten water restrictions depends on whether you're getting water or giving it.

    In Pinellas County, which uses water from Hillsborough and Pasco counties, local officials had strong words for the draft 17-page order released Friday by the Southwest Florida Water Mangement District.

    "This could start the water wars all over again," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who sits on the board of Tampa Bay Water, the region's water utility.

    In Hillsborough County, which supplies water to local communities, officials were supportive of the extra conservation measures.

    "I think the approach they've taken to this is a very measured approach," said Hillsborough Commissioner Chris Hart, who also sits on Tampa Bay Water.

    In Pasco County, officials supported increasing rates for those who use the most water but worried that the Swiftmud order could go too far and slow development. Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, chairwoman of Tampa Bay Water, said that while she knew the order was coming, "I didn't expect it to have all the things that are in the cookie mix today."

    The Tampa Bay area is experiencing the worst drought in the more than 85 years that records have been kept, a condition that has resulted in the region pumping more groundwater than Swiftmud permits allow.

    Tampa Bay Water wants to continue exceeding its pumping permit for the duration of the drought without the penalty of millions of dollars in fines it potentially faces from Swiftmud.

    The executive order represents Swiftmud's conditions: a list of demands on both the utility and local governments that would result in higher water rates, stricter enforcement of water restrictions and review of new development to identify how much water it will need and where it will come from.

    The provisions address what is described in the order as, "an acute emergency affecting the public health, safety and welfare, a public water supply and the health of animals, fish and aquatic life."

    Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan said officials can present their concerns to the agency's governing board that will review the order March 20. He said the conditions of the order would last only as long as the emergency lasts.

    "We've had two years of drought," Molligan said. "We've got a very serious situation here that we have to address."

    In Pinellas, local officials said the requirements and language of the order represent an overreaction to TBW's request. Latvala said she fears it will cause panic in the community when the truth is, "We have more than sufficient water to meet those needs," she said.

    "It's making a mountain out of a mole hill," Latvala said. "It's more than we need. All of this isn't necessary. Just say it's okay to exceed the pumping."

    She and Pinellas Utilities Director Pick Talley both said Swiftmud was overstepping its bounds with some stipulations of the order, such as requiring local governments to set higher water rates and requiring review of local developments.

    "Most of us in the business are saying Swiftmud is being a little regulatory in their outlook, not recognizing we have a record drought," Talley said. "It's kind of penalizing the public for the drought."

    Hillsborough County officials had a different read of the order.

    "They did a pretty thorough job of trying to address all the issues and concerns," said Gary Kuhl, Hillsborough's water resource team administrator. "They tried to deal with some of the growth issues in a fairly reasonable fashion."

    A substantial amount of water is coming out of Hillsborough County, Hart said. And while conservation and enforcement is going on, there needs to be even greater public awareness of the severity of the drought, he said.

    "We can expect another year of drought," Hart said. "I think, based on all the professional input we have, we need to take a look at stronger measures that are going to be greater conservations measures than we had in the past."

    Pasco's reaction to Swiftmud's proposed order was mixed.

    The section dealing with higher conservation rates for high-end water users already has been adopted in Tampa and is under consideration in Hillsborough and Pasco. In fact, county commissioners plan to hire a consultant today to study how to set those rates.

    As for Swiftmud's requirement that local governments prove they can meet water needs of new construction -- which some fear hints at a building freeze -- county officials are concerned.

    "Land use decisions belong with local government," said Hildebrand.

    "Why are they strapping local governments with that responsibility?" said Pasco administrator John Gallagher, who points out that Tampa Bay Water is legally bound to match member governments' water demand.

    Pasco issued nearly 3,000 building permits for single-family homes last year. But it's not overdevelopment but drought that's causing the water shortfalls, commissioners said. Water consumption projections assumed a growth rate last year of 2 1/2 percent. Actual growth in the year 2000 turned out to be only 1 1/2 percent.

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