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    A Times Editorial

    Clearwater should move slowly on water issues

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 2000

    At tonight's Clearwater City Commission meeting, commissioners are scheduled to discuss a proposed deal with Tampa Bay Water that would bring a better taste -- and probably higher water rates -- to city water users.

    We hope city and Tampa Bay Water officials do a better job of explaining that proposal and its costs tonight than they did at Monday's City Commission work session. Seldom have we seen so many blank looks or heard such a collection of "ums" and "ahs" and "We don't knows" from staff presenters as during Monday's discussion of the water proposal.

    The essence of the deal appears to be this: Tampa Bay Water, which is the region's water wholesaler, is under the gun to reduce environmentally damaging pumping from its 11 well fields by 2002, so it is scrambling to find new water sources for the region in a hurry. The pressure is intensified by the extended drought in Florida that has reduced water levels substantially and, depending on how much rain falls between now and next summer's rainy season, could precipitate a water crisis in some areas by spring.

    Tampa Bay Water wants the city to up its production of water from city wells. Clearwater uses about 15-million gallons of water a day and buys most of that water from Pinellas County. Only 3-million gallons are drawn from the city's wells. Tampa Bay Water is pushing a plan that would raise that to 5-million gallons.

    Under the proposal, improvements in the city's well fields and construction of a reverse-osmosis water plant would enable the city to pump that much extra water and also deliver better-tasting water to its water customers. Reverse-osmosis treatment forces freshwater through special membranes that remove impurities and results in a better-tasting product than water treated with chlorine alone.

    Tampa Bay Water has proposed to build the water plant on a fast track that would have construction under way by January and the plant operating by the end of 2001. Then the agency would sell the water plant to the city, which would operate it from then on.

    Tampa Bay Water also has proposed to fast-track the study and design phase that would have to precede construction. The agency already has selected a firm to do the work within 60 days, starting within the next couple of weeks, and wants the city to pay about $270,000 of the $700,000 cost of the study.

    A site for the water plant already has been proposed: the southwest corner of Sid Lickton Park, a collection of city ball fields just north of the intersection of Drew Street and Saturn Avenue.

    At Monday's work session, no one could say how much the plant would cost to build or how much the city would be expected to pay to buy it. No one could say how much it would cost the city annually to operate and maintain the plant. No one knows how the project might impact water rates. No one knows what the plant would look like. The neighborhood that could get the water plant as a new neighbor has not been drawn into the process.

    Whether because city commissioners were confused by Monday's presentation or have already made up their mind about the proposal or are just saving their thunder for tonight's meeting, they asked relatively few questions and did little to clear the clouds from the issue. Some seemed inclined to go ahead with the study and design phase, saying that all the city is committing to is $270,000.

    This is not that simple. Clearwater commissioners, who have a reputation for tossing money away on consultants and are working to recover from a crisis of public trust, need to proceed very carefully.

    While Clearwater, like all local governments in the region, is obligated to do its part to ease the water crisis, city commissioners must not allow Tampa Bay Water's timetable to force them to make an ill-informed decision. City staffers seem uncomfortable and clearly do not have enough information to answer commissioners' questions, much less to guide them toward resolution. That ought to be a red flag for the commission.

    Within the last year the City Commission, faced with reduction of water quality from its wells and more stringent federal standards for water treatment, had been leaning toward getting out of the water production business and buying all of the city's water from Pinellas County. An abrupt about-face needs to be properly explained to residents and thoroughly understood by commissioners.

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