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Water could be limited by boom

Some residents worry that future water supplies will be too expensive for Tampa Bay Water to stop pumping the county's groundwater.

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 28, 2000


LAND O'LAKES -- You hear it from Pasco County residents gazing at the brown hay fields that once were their green lawns.

Or from homeowners distressed about their yards sinking from what they believe is overpumping of groundwater.

In a season when water sprinklers are clamped for all but a few hours a week, how is it that every month seems to bring yet another announcement that 1,500 homes are coming to Pasco?

The truth is, potential water shortages haven't slowed development one bit. In fact, the only real constraint is the cost of running water pipes to a proposed subdivision.

Tampa Bay Water, the regional water authority serving Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, is obliged to provide every drop of water demanded by member municipalities. The guarantee is enshrined in the agreement that established the authority.

"We don't have any responsibility over growth in any county," said David Bracciano, the authority's resource conservation coordinator. "They need water, we give it to them."

But critics point out that Bracciano's guarantee -- and Pasco's future growth -- depends upon the water authority's ability to deliver the goods.

The three-county region uses an average of 250-million gallons of water a day. In Pasco alone, demand is expected to grow more than 60 percent, from 22-million gallons a day to 36-million gallons in 2010.

Tampa Bay Water's solution is to build a new reservoir and treatment plant using surface water from the Hillsborough and Alafia rivers and the Tampa Bypass Canal. The Big Bend seawater desalination plant, expected to come on line in the next few years in southern Hillsborough County, will initially produce 25-million gallon of drinking water per day.

By 2010, new sources of water are supposed to generate another 111-million gallons a day. That would enable the authority to reduce groundwater pumping by 40 percent in the 11 well fields north of Tampa (There are six in Pasco and five in Hillsborough).

"What's ironic is that Pasco's demand is growing, and pumping from Pasco is declining," Bracciano said.

Gilliam Clarke is watching, but she isn't holding her breath.

A veteran of earlier water wars that pitted Pasco against Pinellas, Clarke need only stroll from her Quail Hollow home to see the damage caused by pumping from the nearby Cypress Creek Wellfield: Sunken turf. Dead cypress trees.

With more than 40,000 new homes in the works in central Pasco alone, the water authority's thirst for Pasco water could be a hard addiction to break, Clarke said.

The new treatment plant and reservoir depend upon the whims of the weather. Desalination's drawbacks include the relative costliness of drawing salt from seawater.

"I don't think there should be an inhibition on Pasco's growth. However, I think growth in the entire region should be predicated on the availability of water," Clarke said. "When you destroy somebody's property just to water somebody's grass, I think that's ludicrous."

Among the biggest critics of Tampa Bay Water is Pasco County Commissioner Steve Simon, who sits on the authority's board of directors.

Although Simon wants to wean the authority off Pasco water -- he's proposing at least one more desalination plant -- he opposes freezing growth to accomplish that end.

Significantly slowing housing growth would set off a ripple of economic decline extending far beyond the building trades, he said.

"You'd be killing yourself, absolutely devastating the Pasco economy while the other members grow and continue to pump the water from here," Simon said.

Both Clarke and Simon insist Tampa Bay Water has failed to provide for growth that in the next 20 years is expected to boost Florida's population of 15.5-million by a third.

Clarke suspects Hillsborough and Pinellas counties enjoy the status quo of inexpensive Pasco groundwater. But she said reliance on costlier desalination is inevitable, and the sooner Florida residents realize that, the better.

"If you want to live in Florida and insist on having a green lawn, and if you insist on crowding 50 gazillion people in a small area, what do you expect?" Clarke said. "Water is going to get very expensive. And it should."

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