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    Tampa Bay Water wants to pump more, cheaper

    The utility will ask Swiftmud for relief from the limits of its permit, which upsets some board members.

    By JEAN HELLER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000


    CLEARWATER -- Tampa Bay Water decided Monday to seek sweeping relief from the pumping permit that limits how much groundwater can be pumped to meet the needs of three counties.

    Officials from the region's largest water utility will appear today before the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which issued the pumping permit.

    They will ask for help adjusting pumping numbers to keep the utility under the cap. The limit tops out at 158-million gallons per day, averaged over a rolling 36-month period.

    Violations of the permit are subject to fines of $10,000 per day per occurrence.

    Water officials will ask for relief on five levels:

    Discount from the pumping totals everything over 5-million gallons a day used by the city of Tampa. Two years of exceptional drought have all but drained the Hillsborough River, Tampa's principal source of water. Tampa Bay Water now is delivering as much as 40-million gallons daily to Tampa.

    Discount everything that is pumped from the aquifer to augment endangered wetlands, since most of that water seeps right back underground.

    Encourage Tampa Bay Water's six member governments -- Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties and the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey -- to step up enforcement of existing water-use restrictions.

    Encourage an early startup of Tampa's plan to pump drinking water into the aquifer during times of plentiful supply. Since supplies are not plentiful now, early startup of the aquifer storage and recovery program would depend on borrowing water now for replacement later.

    Increase the cap on the permit, which covers TBW's 11 well fields in three counties, from 158-million gallons daily to 164-million.

    Officials anticipated that increasing the cap on the permit would cause the most controversy; and it did. The nine-member water board agreed unanimously to take the first four measures to Swiftmud, the regional water regulator. But both members from Hillsborough County and one of the two members from Pasco were against the permit increase.

    Hillsborough commissioners Ronda Storms and Chris Hart argued that groundwater pumping is supposed to be going down, not up.

    "If we want to present a unified front to Swiftmud, let's go with A through D and leave E out of it," Storms said. Ultimately, she and Hart, plus Pasco Commissioner Ted Schrader, voted against proposing all five elements, while the six other members of the board voted put everything before Swiftmud.

    "I never get a motion passed," Storms said.

    Late in the meeting, Hart said he felt so steamrolled by the board's action that he would ask his fellow commissioners to replace him, although he said after the meeting that if he left it would be to create more time for other duties.

    "I'm comfortable with this plan," said St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer, chairman of the water board. "We're within two years of having (new water projects) on line. We are going to win. But not to get relief (from the pumping cap and fines) in a situation that is totally beyond our control is unthinkable."

    Don Conn, Tampa Bay Water general counsel, said the regulations the Tampa Bay Water operates under require that no action be taken on a permit increase request between 30 and 90 days to give third parties time to request arbitration. "I just think it would be a good idea to have the request on the table at such time as we do exceed the permit limits," Conn said.

    That is projected to happen in April.

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