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A Times Editorial

County needs to keep reclaimed water on tap

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001

Residents in a Land O'Lakes neighborhood want Pasco County to provide their water and sewer service. Can you blame them?

Over the years, privately owned utilities like Aloha, Lindrick and Mad Hatter have had their share of complaints about poor service or environmental troubles. It is the reason the county is studying a potential takeover of the private water and sewer companies.

But the desire is more immediate to the homeowners of the Oak Groves subdivision just south of State Road 54 in central Pasco. They are caught in the middle of a legal battle that predates construction of their homes; a legal dispute won by Mad Hatter after a federal court found the county barged into the utility's state-designated franchise area illegally.

By the end of the week, the county must turn over utility service in Oak Groves to Mad Hatter. The cost of the pipes and other infrastructure is $1.1-million. Last fall, the county agreed to pay the utility $245,000 and Mad Hatter's attorneys $558,000. It is an expensive reminder of following poor advice from the county's previous legal staff.

Tonight, Pasco's commissioners will hold a public hearing before relinquishing water and sewer service to Mad Hatter. The transfer is inevitable, but still to be decided is the question of continued reclaimed water service to the neighborhood's 300 homes.

It is a delicate subject, given the penalties assessed for the county's heavy-handed approach in the past. The county's outside legal counsel has filed a petition asking a judge for clarification since the court-ordered divestiture makes no reference to reclaimed water.

The water, known as reclaimed, recycled or gray, is highly treated wastewater used for irrigation. Homeowners pay the county a set fee of less than $7 per month for it. Though no longer available in unlimited quantities, the gray water still can be used more readily than potable water under the current drought restrictions.

Residents fear the Mad Hatter takeover will end the availability of recycled water. The county, initially resistant to the idea of maintaining the system after the transfer, has offered to turn it over to Mad Hatter. It has not received an answer. We encourage Mad Hatter to accept the county's offer.

The quantity of water is at issue, with the utility seeking a guaranteed flow. An expansion of the county utility system is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2002. It will allow an abundance of reclaimed water produced in west Pasco to be available for use in central Pasco neighborhoods.

Until it gets a definitive response from the courts or an agreement with Mad Hatter, the county should continue providing reclaimed water to the Oak Groves neighborhood, which is scheduled to grow to 800 homes when completed.

Walking away with the issue undecided would be a mistake. It sends the wrong signal to the public about consumption at the same time the county is under orders from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to cut water use.

The county fumbled its previous dealings with Mad Hatter. It should avoid a repeat.

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