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Consensus on use of our water is as scarce as Hades ice cubes

By C.T. BOWEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2001


Pat Mulieri thinks the Pasco County Commission needs consensus on water.

I know. I know. Listen hard and you almost could hear Peter O'Toole vocalizing The Impossible Dream.

Mulieri's call came Tuesday, just minutes before the commission failed to reach unanimous agreement on what restrictions are needed to comply with the Southwest Florida Water Management District's mandate to cut water consumption.

The ordinance was pretty basic stuff. Reduce lawn watering. Wash cars once per week. The kind of temporary steps needed during the extended drought that has forced Tampa Bay Water, the regional water utility, to pump more groundwater than is permissible. The ordinance passed 4-1 with Commissioner Ted Schrader in the minority.

So, you have to wonder, if they can't get five votes on pressure washer controls, how are they supposed to be unified on hundreds of millions of dollars worth of desalination, groundwater pumping and surface water storage projects to provide water to 2-million people?

It won't be the first time they've tried. Five years ago, the commission culled together a much-ballyhooed mission statement on water to send to its state legislators. The board approved it 4-1. Mulieri dissented. So much for consensus.

A little over a year ago, the commission, now with Steve Simon as a member, met to devise a strategy to present to Tampa Bay Water concerning future water sources.

Commissioners agreed to oppose proposed groundwater withdrawals at the Two Rivers and Cone ranches and advocate a second desalination plant, possibly in Pasco County, as an alternative.

The unity lasted less than two weeks. Simon, one of two commissioners on the Tampa Bay Water board, instead advocated delaying the massive reservoir planned for southern Hillsborough County, a project intended to help reduce groundwater pumping in Pasco County. Ann Hildebrand, the county's other Tampa Bay Water member, helped shoot Simon down.

Now, Mulieri wants a workshop on the proposed Cypress Bridge II project, a plan to withdraw additional groundwater from central Pasco. It is on the list of projects the Tampa Bay Water board will consider finalizing in July. The original proposal to pump another 4-million gallons a day from the existing Cypress Bridge well field came in 1995. The idea now is to drill four new wells instead of pumping at existing ones.

Environmental activists are suspicious, fearing the area cannot tolerate more groundwater pumping and that Tampa Bay Water will someday seek to expand the new well field's capacity.

But, allowing additional pumping in the vicinity of Cypress Bridge was inherited fromthe master water plan that accompanied the 1998 governance agreement. That is the document approved by Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey to create Tampa Bay Water, reduce groundwater pumping 40 percent by the end of 2007 and supposedly end the political bickering known as the water wars.

So, yet again a commission workshop on water is coming. Don't expect a touchy-feely bonding session. Heck, they couldn't even agree on what to discuss when they do meet.

Commissioner Peter Altman said the county should concern itself with things it can control locally like landscape ordinances and incentives to discourage traditional spray irrigation systems.

But, Mulieri wants consensus (translation: to kill Cypress Bridge II).

It's not going to happen, warned Hildebrand and Schrader, the board's two current representatives on Tampa Bay Water. There is insufficient support on the nine-member water board to derail it.

"If we give up Cypress Bridge, we're giving up a heck of a lot," Mulieri countered.

No such reservations were voiced three years ago when the commission, including Mulieri, accepted the back-patting accolades for approving the governance agreement to create new water sources and end expensive litigation among the region's governments.

We've pointed out the following before, but will do so again since the message often seems lost. The commission would be wise to think back to its Feb. 15, 2000, workshop on water and the advice offered by County Attorney Robert Sumner.

Basically what you want everyone to do, Sumner said at the conclusion of the three-hour session, is to honor their previous commitments.

Those commitments, we note, received unanimous approval from Pasco commissioners.

Talk about consensus.

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