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Drought jeopardizes water deal

Tampa Bay Water had agreed not to pump more than 158-million gallons a day and to significantly reduce that amount by Dec. 31, 2002. The drought could change all that.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000


When Pasco's delegates to Tampa Bay Water meet this morning, county water attorney Rick Tschantz will deliver the bad news: The region's largest water supplier doesn't think it will make its 2002 deadline to cut back on pumping.

Worse, it might exceed its cap on groundwater pumping -- which will increase pumping in Pasco, Tschantz said.

"Any time there's an increase in pumping it affects Pasco," Tschantz said.

The apparent culprits: this season's extended drought and an appeal by a Hillsborough activist group against one of Tampa Bay Water's projects.

Tampa Bay Water was formed two years ago to end the region's water wars and cut back on groundwater pumping in Pasco. As part of the agreement, the newly created utility agreed not to pump more than 158-million gallons a day (mgd) -- on a 36-month running average -- and to significantly reduce that amount by Dec. 31, 2002.

Both promises are in trouble.

Tampa Bay Water officials have said before that a challenge by the group Save Our Bay and Canals against a planned water treatment plant would delay the first deadline by about nine months.

But on Monday, Tampa Bay Water members will be asked to tell the Southwest Florida Water Management District -- which issues permits for water use -- that it likely won't be able to stay under its permitted 158-mgd average cap.

In fact, the utility has been pumping record levels of groundwater out of its well fields during this year's dry season to avert an emergency in the city of Tampa, said Alison Adams, who manages the well fields for Tampa Bay Water.

Last month, the utility pumped 207-mgd from the well fields, of which about 60 percent came from Pasco, Adams said.

"We definitely have never pumped that much before," Adams said.

Adams said Tampa Bay Water officials had not counted on a severe drought when they agreed to cap pumping at 158 mgd. Unless new water sources are brought online -- fast -- Adams said this spring's record pumping will push Tampa Bay Water above the 158-mgd average sometime between May and September 2001.

"I don't know whether we can find and develop sources fast enough to get in that time frame," Adams said.

Tschantz said the whole situation is disturbing.

"This was the key to the whole agreement, the deadline, the deadline is critical," Tschantz said.

"The other basis for the whole partnership agreement was the 158-million gallon a day cap."

Swiftmud officials seem to agree. In a June 9 letter to Tampa Bay Water General Manager Jerry Maxwell, Swiftmud Executive Director E. D. Sonny Vergara said any breach of the groundwater cap would be considered a violation of the utility's water use permit.

"It is absolutely critical that Tampa Bay Water not exceed that cap or any of the caps for the 11 well fields," Vergara wrote.

"Withdrawals in excess of 158 mgd will result in further significant (environmental) harm," Vergara continued.

Pasco County Commissioner Steve Simon's response was simple and direct: "I told you so."

Simon and fellow Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, Pasco's delegates to Tampa Bay Water, meet this morning with Tschantz to review Monday's water board agenda. Simon said he's disappointed, though not surprised, by Maxwell's decision to ask for more time and more pumping.

"I have been on the record for months that there was no way shape or form were they going to meet their deadlines," Simon said. He said he thinks Tampa Bay Water underestimated just how susceptible the ambitious timetable for pumping reductions was to any outside force.

Hildebrand said delays caused by previous challenges to the master water plan, new water board members who had to be educated and last-minute changes to the water plan -- pushed by Simon -- all were to blame.

"I've been saying this like a broken record. . . . Whenever you deviate off an aggressive plan that affects us (Pasco), and that's like a fishbone caught sideways in my throat," Hildebrand said.

Long-time water activist Gilliam Clarke, whose Wesley Chapel property has been damaged by pumping, said she hopes Pasco fights the delays.

"I'm hoping that Pasco is going to take a really firm stand on this," Clarke said. "What they are trying to do will violate the partnership agreement . . . if they are just going to ignore a legal document than its time for something to be done."

-- Alisa Ulferts covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is ulferts@sptimes.com.

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