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By ALICIA CALDWELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001
This was the scene three years ago, almost to the day:
Pinellas County Commissioners were ebullient. There was backslapping, even hugs. They had just decided to give up something the county had spent decades and millions of dollars to protect: Pinellas' water rights.
Eventually, six warring governments agreed to throw their weapons and goodies into one pile and share. It was a leap of faith, this creation of Tampa Bay Water, and it took a great deal of diplomacy to make it happen.
That's why last week's decision by the Hillsborough County Commission to challenge a key part of the cooperative water plan for the future -- the desalination plant in southeastern Hillsborough County -- is so maddening.
It's pure pandering, and has little chance of doing anything other than damaging the spirit of cooperation that created the regional water board.
"I think it seriously shakes the foundation that Tampa Bay Water was founded on," said Ed Collins, a former Pasco County commissioner who was among the cast of government types who sweated blood to make the agreement happen. "Pasco dealt in good faith. Pinellas dealt in good faith. I don't know what Hillsborough dealt in."
Hillsborough commissioners ignored their staff's recommendation and several environmental studies that said the plant, which would produce 25-million gallons of drinking water a day, would be safe.
At a meeting attended by dozens of opponents, many wearing yellow T-shirts, Hillsborough commissioners said the scientific studies weren't enough to assuage their concerns: They wanted the desal plant builder to financially absolve the county in case something went wrong.
The state's environmental protection folks already have said they plan to issue the necessary permit for construction of the $110-million plant, scheduled to open in December 2002.
Now, the process will be delayed while a judge hears Hillsborough's objections.
"We don't need this," said Susan Latvala, a Pinellas commissioner who is on the water board. "Time is money. And there was already barely sufficient time to get the project up and running."
The desal plant is an important part of the deal the regional partners made in creating Tampa Bay Water: They would find other water sources to take the pressure off Pasco County well fields, which are being sucked dry by thirsty neighboring counties.
Former Hillsborough commissioner Ed Turanchik, one of those who labored to create Tampa Bay Water, sighed deeply when asked what he thought about the decision.
"The thing that I think is a shame is there doesn't seem to be a lot of basis to oppose the desal plant at this point," Turanchik said. "You kind of cringe at these symbolic protests."
Before it's all over, Pinellas commissioners likely will get an opportunity to show their political backbone. This summer, Tampa Bay Water likely will choose to build another desal plant, and it probably will be in Pinellas, said Latvala and others.
You can bet that Pinellas officials will face the same pressure their colleagues across the bay felt. They'll need to weigh the science, the protests and the promise that Tampa Bay Water was founded on.
David Fischer, who had chaired the water board when he was St. Petersburg's mayor, said he would expect Pinellas to step up to the plate, regardless of the Hillsborough episode.
Said Fischer: "There's still a lot of bad feelings between the counties, and we just need to get over it."
In the end, there really isn't much of a choice: The simple truth is there isn't enough groundwater to go around. What we have to hope for is a group of elected officials who can see the big picture and have the stomach to make what may be an unpopular decision.