Tampa Bay Times: “Water dispute hits land”

 In News Archives, Water Wars

06/25/96

Some people will do anything to make a point.

On Monday, a lot of them did. More than two dozen public officials turned up in a meadow that used to be a north-central Pasco County lake to demonstrate what they see as the folly of Pinellas County’s water policies.

In what might have been the social event of the water-war season, Hillsborough county commissioners Ed Turanchik and Jim Norman and Pasco commissioner Ed Collins stood in a boat beached on the dry lake bed that used to be under 15 feet of water and dropped lures into the surrounding weeds.

“The plan,” Turanchik said before the event, “is to cast for bass, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll dig for trout.”

All Turanchik snagged was a television soundman.

The lighthearted event had a serious purpose, however. It gave officials a chance to vent their anger at Pinellas County for escalating its demands for water from environmentally damaged areas of Pasco and Hillsborough, while piling on litigation and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on radio and newspaper advertising to justify its actions to the public.

Those who showed up at the lake bed included Hernando Commissioner Pat Novy; Pasco commissioners Ann Hildebrand and Sylvia Young; Pasco County Manager John Gallagher; state Rep. Carl Littlefield, R-Dade City; and Pete Hubbell,executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

They agreed they had to find a way to force Pinellas County to accept alternatives to more ground water. But there was a distinct lack of accord on how to go about it. Collins said he would ask his board to consider withdrawing from the West Coast Regional Water supply Authority, which has a history of siding with Pinellas County on water issues.

“So we’re going to evaluate that very seriously,” Collins said. “I envision the possibility of Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, and maybe Citrus forming a new compact.” Asked if he cared about leaving Pinellas to fend for itself, Collins replied, “Do they care about Pasco?”

Turanchik said he will not suggest leaving West Coast but he will push to withhold support and financing for new water projects planned by the utility. All of them are in Hillsborough.

“We are not going forward with this resource plan unless there are guarantees for the protection of Pasco and Hillsborough,” he said.

State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, said she was considering asking the Legislature next year to dissolve West coast and transfer its duties to the Tampa Bay Planning Council. She said there also was discussion of legislation that would prohibit one county from taking water from another.

On the hot, humid morning that left most of the 60 people present in soaking wet clothes, Turanchik asked why, two years after the end of the last drought, all but 25 of Big Fish Lake’s 500 acres were growing blackberries where lily pads should be.

Pinellas County officials maintain that most of the environmental damage to Pasco, Hernando, and Hillsborough counties is due to five years of exceptionally dry weather.

Turanchik rejected the claim.

“We’re 12 inches of rain above normal for the past two years, and the lake is still dry,” he said. “In the past, Big Fish Lake has always recovered from drought. But it isn’t happening this time. What’s the difference?”

The lake, he said, is representative of conditions of everything between the Cross-Bar well field in north-central Pasco and Cypress Creek well field in central Pasco, where groundwater pumping has been heavy.

“I can’t believe the government would do this to the environment, to the people,” he said. “(Pinellas Commissioner) Chuck Rainey has been up here. He’s seen this. His answer is to do augmentation wells, to pump water from deep in the aquifer to refill the lake. It would take 5 million gallons a day to keep this lake filled. That’s like bleeding a hemophiliac.” Then, pleased himself, he remarked, “Hey, that’s a good quote.” Turanchik then mounted a horse and rode away — in search of water, he said.