Tampa Bay Times: “County backs new water plan”

 In News Archives, Water Wars

04/28/98

They weren’t called the water wars for nothing.

For years, local governments fought over water in Tampa Bay like lions of a drying pool on the Serengeti.

On Monday, Hillsborough’s County Commission gave the third — and perhaps most important — blessing to an agreement it hopes will end the fighting and keep that pool from drying up.

The agreement would reorganize the West Coast Water Supply Authority, directing it to drastically reduce well-field pumping over the next decade while finding new sources of water. Water rates are expected to decrease slightly, if they are affected at all, county officials said.

“This is very big,” said County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who spent more than two years shaping the agreement as chairman of West Coast. “For the region, after Tampa International Airport, this is the most significant thing that has happened. We had nothing two years ago. We have something very real today.”

“The reorganization of West coast, a governmental authority with representatives from Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Pasco counties and the cities of Tampa, New Port Richey and St. Petersburg, already has been approved by New Port Richey and St. Petersburg. Pinellas County commissioners are scheduled to vote on the agreement today, while Tampa and Pasco County are set to take it up on Thursday.

But Hillsborough, where many of the well fields are located, loomed large, and its approval clears what many saw as the highest hurdle the agreement would face.

Specifics of the agreement include:

  • Reducing the pumping at 11 well fields now in use from the current level of 144 million gallons per day to 90 million gallons per day by 2008.
  • Selling Hillsborough’s $19 million in water supply assets to West Coast.
  • Using $138 million from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which oversees water management in 16 counties, to find new sources of at least 85 million gallons per day. That water would come from a combination of new well fields, desalination plants, a massive new reservoir and reclaimed water.

Lawmakers in Tallahassee, who must pass bills to incorporate the reorganization into state law, have said they need each government to give its approval by the end of the week so they will have time to address it before the end of the legislative session.

“So many good things will come of this,” said Turanchik, who received a letter from Gov. Lawton Chiles thanking him for his efforts to resolve the water issue. “And there won’t be that constant knife in regional relationships.”

For years, Hillsborough commissioners have complained about dying cypress trees and drying lakes they believe are the result of excessive pumping. It irked them more that the pumping was done to provide water to residents in other areas, most notably St. Petersburg.

Hillsborough took the issue up on Wednesday, but commissioners decided to postpone a decision until Monday because they had not seen some of the final documents. However, commissioners voted 7–0 Wednesday not to ask for revisions, something Turanchik warned would kill the agreement because other governments would then seek their own changes.

Friday’s decision to approve or reject the agreement as it stood left no room for commissioners to make substantive changes, but their discussion on Monday still took hours.

In the end, with Commissioner Joe Chillura absent, they voted 6–0 to approve the agreement.