Tampa Bay Times: “Pulling the plug on water agency”

 In News Archives, Water Wars


Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, furious at the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority’s continued emphasis on wellfield pumping, plans to propose today that the county step back from its commitment to the agency.

The authority helps supply water to Pinellas, Pasco, and Hillsborough counties and the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa. It was created in the ’70s to end the “water wars” among West Central Florida counties. Representatives from each local government serve on its board.

Turanchik, who represents Hillsborough on West coast, is rightly steamed that the authority voted to double the amount of pumping at a wellfield adjacent to Hillsborough in Pasco, despite these “donor” counties’ objections.

BOTH PASCO and Hillsborough have experienced significant damage from overpumping — low lake levels, dried-up wetlands and other environmental damage. Both counties wanted more information on the likely impacts of the increased pumping. The board dismissed those worries and approved the accelerated pumping. Incredibly, Tampa’s representative sided with Pinellas and St. Petersburg against his home county.

Turanchik is also upset that West Coast consistently sides with Pinellas and St. Petersburg against the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which is responsible for regulating water use in the region. The water district wants to reduce the area’s reliance on well-fields and is pushing for increased water conservation and the development of new water sources, such as deaslination.

Pinellas and St. Petersburg, often joined by West Coast, have responded with a flood of litigation. Pinellas has already spent about $2.5 million challenging the water district’s attempts to curtail pumping. Both Pasco and Hillsborough support the district’s efforts. Yet as members they end up contributing to West Coast’s legal fight against the district. Turanchik also points out that West Coast has hired some of the same consultants who are working on Pinellas’ litigation against the water district.

All this has prompted Turanchik to demand change. In a memorandum sent to his fellow commissioners Tuesday, he wrote, “In my view, it is well past time to reorder the nature of the relationships at West Coast by securing committments from the member governments to respect the interests, environment and property rights of donor counties and their citizens. It is time for Pinellas County and St. Petersburg to get over their fixation on fighting the water management district and start listening to and respecting the views of their partners — Pasco and Hillsborough counties.”

He suggests the commissioners reject the proposed funding agreement that would require Hillsborough to contribute $1.5 million to West Coast and also suspend the county’s support for West Coast’s resource development plan, which calls for the development of a number of different wellfields and the use of recycled water.

He wants the commissioners to adopt a position that their future support will depnd on West Coast:

  • Receiving the approval of a donor county before seeking a permit for additional pumping or new sources.
  • Agreeing not to initiate additional lawsuits against the water district or any member government.
  • Agreeing not to hire any consultants to develop permit applications without receiving approval of the donor county.
  • Agreeing to drop or settle all litigation pertaining to wellfeilds that affect Hillsborough County.

Unless West Coast approves these provisions, Turanchik believes Hillsborough should start to develop its own water sources, independent of the regionaly agency.

Turanchik is absolutely right that West Coast must start acting as if it were concerned with all its members — not just Pinellas and St. Petersburg.

West Coast officials say they want to peacefully resolve water conflicts, yet they invariably side with Pinellas, which has tried to bulldoze the water district and anyone who gets in the way of its water demands. Pinellas even threatened to sue homeowners near wellfields who had joined forces to oppose overpumping.

Still, it is important to stress that West Coast remains the best vehicle for addressing the area’s water problems. It is going to take regional solutions to meet the water needs of the area’s 2 million — and growing — population, particularly since heavily populated Pinellas has little fresh water.

WEST COAST OFFICIALS stress they are seeking to reduce environmental risks by developing new water sources and by linking the wellfields with a pipeline, which will allow the agency to reduce pumping aty a stressed well-field yet still meet customers’ needs.

All this sounds encouraging. And the agency has done some good things. But when the battle lines are drawn, West Coast always lines up with those who want to keep the pumps hammering away. We’d hate to see West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority crumble. But if it takes Turanchik’s dramatic measure to make West Coast officials see that the water-givers deserve as much consideration as the water-takers, then so be it.