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Keep an eye on Skyland Utilities for water grab

Anyone who remembers the early 1990s, when Pasco County was nearly pumped dry for the sake of green lawns in other parts of the Tampa Bay area …

Or all the decades when St. Petersburg owned Weeki Wachee Spring …

Or 2007, when more than a dozen Central Florida cities or counties plotted to tap the intermittent stream still optimistically called the Withlacoochee River …

Then the following line will scare you:

"The utility is also considering selling bulk water.''

The utility in this case is Skyland Utilities, a subsidiary of Evans Properties, which has filed an application (where the previously mentioned line appears) with the state Public Service Commission to provide water and sewer service to more than a dozen parcels it owns in eastern Hernando and Pasco counties.

No, this isn't a water grab — not yet — partly because the PSC hasn't given Skyland permission to operate here and the two counties are fighting to keep this from happening.

Even if it gets this permission, Skyland (and Evans) president Ron Edwards said, the main idea is to serve agriculture on its land, including, maybe, farms growing sources of biofuels, such as algae or castor beans, or factories that process them.

But he also said this: "If water becomes a more and more scarce resource and we can't make money selling crops, we may be able to make more money selling water to municipalities.''

To me, that sounds as if the company is staking a claim to groundwater, which is disturbing for two reasons. Eventually, Skyland may be able to ship it elsewhere. And water should be a public resource, not a commodity.

Fortunately, that's the way the law views it. Kind of.

Bill Bilenky, general counsel for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, said groundwater must be used for the public benefit and have a "reasonable, beneficial use.''

Any owner trying to change or expand an existing permit (and Evans already has the right to pump a total of nearly 3 million gallons of water per day from all of its Hernando and Pasco properties) must meet those tests, Bilenky said. That's very difficult, he said, unless the owner shows exactly how it plans to use the water.

But, said St. Petersburg environmental lawyer John Thomas, a provision in the same new law that moved permitting power from water management district boards to executive directors, also may have made it easier to store and pipe water for profit.

As for "local sources first,'' the law that discourages shipping water around the state, well, staffers for the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee have recommended establishing a statewide commission that oversees "Florida's water resources and supplies development.'' (Which doesn't sound much like preservation or conservation.)

A draft report by the Council of 100, an influential Tampa-based business group, comes to a similar conclusion — no surprise considering this outfit pushed the idea of piping water from north to south Florida in 2003, when one of its members called the Suwannee River basin the "Saudi Arabia of water.''

By that logic, eastern Hernando and Pasco, with its plentiful groundwater, could be compared to, say, Kuwait.

Does this mean we should be afraid of Skyland? Maybe not yet. But we do need to pay attention.

Keep an eye on Skyland Utilities for water grab 11/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 19, 2009 7:42pm]
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