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Panel clears way for reservoir

Hillsborough County questions the safety of the project, but arbitrators rule that it poses no threat.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2001


Hillsborough County questions the safety of the project, but arbitrators rule that it poses no threat.

CLEARWATER -- A 15-billion-gallon water reservoir planned for southern Hillsborough County will be safe for its neighbors and for the environment, an arbitration panel ruled Tuesday.

The panel erased nearly every issue that had clouded the future of the project, designed to provide Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties with up to 66-million gallons of drinking water a day starting in 2005.

The reservoir is the centerpiece of a second phase of projects designed to create new drinking water supplies. The 25-million-gallon-a-day seawater desalination plant on Tampa Bay, scheduled to come on line late next year, is the centerpiece of the first phase.

"The cool thing here is that there is going to be a reservoir," said Jerry Maxwell, general manager of Tampa Bay Water, the region's principal water utility.

"The arbitrators' conclusions of law say the reservoir should function as intended," he said. "This thing works. It's safe. It is no threat to the public health and safety."

Even a member of the Hillsborough County Commission, which sought the arbitration, said he was not surprised by the decision and mostly agreed with it.

"I'm not surprised by the ruling because the extensive nature of the work done by our water resources team and their consultants already concluded that the design was sound," Commissioner Chris Hart said late Tuesday. Hart is also a member of the Tampa Bay Water board.

The three arbitrators -- one chosen by Tampa Bay Water, one by the Hillsborough commissioners and one by both groups -- ordered the utility to give local residents some assurances that chemically treated water seeping from the reservoir would not damage septic systems or local wetlands.

Such a plan is not required at this stage of development by the Department of Environmental Protection, which will issue permits for the project, but the arbitrators told Tampa Bay Water to provide it anyway.

"We never disagreed about doing it," said Don Conn, general manager of Tampa Bay Water. "It was a matter of when we did it. So we'll do it now."

Hillsborough County also had sought an early draft of an emergency action plan that would take effect in the event of a disaster, such as a breach in a reservoir wall.

The arbitrators said there was no legal requirement for the early development of such a plan, but they also said it would have to be done before officials begin filling the reservoir in 2004.

"We had and have some concerns about that, but that's an issue for another day," Hart said.

This could be the last challenge to the reservoir.

Hillsborough County and its Environmental Protection Commission have no further legal recourse. A challenge could come from local residents after the permitting process, but it likely would be expensive and difficult to prevail given the arbitrators' decision.

Maxwell was ecstatic that the tedious process of reorganizing the politically torn West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority into Tampa Bay Water in 1998 has been worth it.

"What it tells you is that (the reorganization) worked," he said. "We survived an alternative method of dispute resolution. We shortened the time this action would normally have taken to about a third, lowered the cost and got a reasonable resolution."

The reservoir will be filled by skimming water during periods of high runoff from the Hillsborough and Alafia rivers and the Tampa Bypass Canal.

When the water is needed for drinking supplies, it will be pumped to a new water treatment plant now under construction in central Hillsborough County.

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