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Give Tampa Bay Water a chance

By CHARLES F. SHANK

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 24, 2000


It appears that Tampa Bay Water is running scared that it will not be able to meet the commitment made last year to supply a certain amount of water in a certain amount of time to Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

At the Nov. 2 Clearwater City Commission meeting, Tampa Bay Water's executive director and his engineer were actually threatening and then pleading with commissioners to start the process necessary to build a reverse osmosis plant in Clearwater.

Neither Tampa Bay Water nor the Clearwater commission should feel obligated to rush to build a plant the taxpayers know nothing about. Both parties have to sit back and try to figure out just how we arrived at this train wreck. The train wreck that I am referring to is the depletion of our water supply in the aquifer.

The chief engineer of the train that caused this wreck is the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud. It knew this wreck was going to happen more than 10 years ago and did nothing. Over the past 10 years Swiftmud took nearly $150-million in taxes from Pinellas taxpayers and still no water. If you add up all the taxes from taxpayers in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco that were sent to Swiftmud over the past 10 years, the number rises to nearly $300-million. This does not include the Pinellas-Anclote River Basin Board taxes, just the Swiftmud governing board taxes. Look at your property tax bill. Yes, you are paying.

That $300-million would have been enough money to place a desalination plant in Pinellas County, one in Hillsborough County and one in Pasco County. Those plants would now be providing more than 100-million gallons of potable water a day, which we desperately need.

Forget about it; it didn't happen. Now what? Are we going to let this same thing happen over the next 10 years?

The reality that we must face is that we are totally dependent on Tampa Bay Water to take care of our water needs. As long as we understand this, we should support them any way possible. What is the best way to help Tampa Bay Water at this time? First, we can't blame Tampa Bay Water for any water shortage that we have at this time. The second thing is to find a solution to the problem that Swiftmud created -- right now.

What I am saying is that since Swiftmud took $300-million from the taxpayers in the three counties over the past 10 years and failed to maintain the aquifer, shouldn't the $300-million in taxes over the next 10 years go to someone who is trying to solve our water shortage and maintain the aquifer? That somebody is Tampa Bay Water.

This could easily be accomplished by the governor and Legislature declaring a sixth water district that includes Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. The Tampa Bay Water Board could be the new governing board and the present basin boards could remain. Since Swiftmud and the state fumbled the ball over the past 10 years, why not let Tampa Bay Water carry the ball for the next 10 years? That ball I am talking about is the $300-million in taxes that will be collected over the next 10 years. That money should be going to Tampa Bay Water to help solve the dwindling aquifer problem in our area.

Back to the Clearwater commission. I have to throw my support behind Tampa Bay Water because it is not the enemy. I actually felt sorry for the people from Tampa Bay Water who presented their case for the plant. They have been forced into a desperate mode to try to fix a bungled water policy -- bungled by the state and bungled by Swiftmud.

Yes, I think the reverse osmosis plant should be built. Yes, I think you should do a better job of informing the public. Yes, I think the state should cough up $2-million, Swiftmud should cough up $2-million and the Pinellas-Anclote River Basin Board should cough up $2-million to build the plant. Yes, I think the city of Clearwater should turn its bloodhounds loose on those three taxing agencies and fight for our money. If they say no, go to the governor and the Legislature and demand that we have a sixth water district and the tax money that goes with it.

Back to the plant. As a matter of fact, I would like to see all of our drinking water passing through those membranes used in reverse osmosis to remove metals, minerals and bacteria from it. We would have a much healthier citizenry.

The sad thing about that whole scene on Nov. 2 is that the state of Florida ranks third nationally for the amount of fresh water available for consumption. Isn't this really a state problem and the state failing its responsibility to the people? The state has never had a realistic water distribution plan. It is a sorry commentary when politicians wind up in our drinking water. Isn't it time we spit them out?

-- Charles F. Shank lives in Clearwater Beach.

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