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Pasco puts foot down on pumping

The county plans to oppose Pinellas' request to drill wells and pump at Al-Bar Ranch and the drainage plans at another well field.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000


DADE CITY -- Pasco County's watering restrictions mean that no landowner -- not even Pinellas County -- can water a backyard at will.

Pasco County commissioners affirmed that Wednesday night, when they agreed to block Pinellas County's attempts to pump 1.3-million gallons of water a day from well fields Pinellas owns in central Pasco.

Pinellas wants to drill seven wells on its Al-Bar Ranch property and increase pumping at the Cross-Bar Ranch well field to restore wetlands damaged by overpumping in the area. The county also wants to create a wildlife habitat on the 12,000 acres it owns in Pasco, Pinellas officials said.

Water district officials signed off on the idea and announced they planned to give Pinellas those permits April 25 unless they hear from those affected by the pumping by April 20.

They will hear from Pasco.

"Pinellas County said they would not take water out of Al-Bar without Pasco County's permission, and we're asking them to honor that," Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher said.

Pasco officials are concerned that the pumping at Al-Bar, coupled with Pinellas' plans for drainage ditches to retain water around Cross Bar, could damage surrounding Pasco properties -- especially Crews Lake.

"Crews Lake is in very bad shape right now," said Rick Tschantz, the Pasco County assistant attorney who specializes in water issues. County officials plan to oppose two of the three permits Pinellas wants: the 1.3-million gallons a day, on annual average, Pinellas wants to pump from Al-Bar, and the drainage plans Pinellas has submitted for Cross Bar.

Pinellas also wants to pump an additional 310,000 gallons a day from Cross Bar, but that is allowed under the Tampa Bay Water master water plan, so Pasco doesn't plan to challenge that permit request.

When he learned last week that Pasco County might challenge the permits, Pinellas Utilities director Pick Tally said he was disappointed and suggested Pasco was more interested in stopping the pumping, period, than in restoring the damaged environment.

"We're just trying to be good land stewards," Tally said. Taking care of the area ensures that Pinellas will continue to harvest pine straw from the 4-million pine trees it has planted in Pasco, which is expected to net Pinellas $1.9-million. As long as Pinellas uses the land for a legitimate commercial agricultural purpose, it stays on Pasco's tax rolls, Tally said.

But Pasco officials question why Pinellas is forging ahead with restoration plans now -- two months before Tampa Bay Water is scheduled to prioritize sites across the region for mitigation.

The region is under a drought now, but Tally said Pinellas applied for the permits more than three years ago.

Although Pasco commissioners voted to challenge just two of the permits, Tschantz said Thursday that he might recommend to commissioners next week that they file to appeal the third permit, the one in which Pinellas would increase pumping at Cross Bar. Tschantz said he has heard that Pinellas' water attorney, Ed de la Parte, is making last-minute changes to the permit application.

"The conditions (of the Cross Bar permit) that made me a little uncomfortable may be drastically altered by the time it gets to Swiftmud," Tschantz said.

De la Parte could not be reached Thursday.

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