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Skyland's water idea should concern us all

Let's talk again about a phrase with an ugly history in Florida: "water grab.''

I was worried about this three months ago when I wrote that Evans Properties planned to tap into the aquifer under its large land holdings in eastern Hernando and Pasco counties.

The company had formed a subsidiary called Skyland Utilities and applied to the state Public Service Commission for a license to provide water and sewer service.

Evans (and Skyland) president Ron Edwards said that selling bulk water outside the county was one of several possible uses for this water.

To clarify, this means piping water to an outside utility, city or county in exchange for money. A lot of people would call that a water grab.

Here's what has happened since November, when Skyland filed with the PSC and both counties objected. Last week, the PSC rejected one of Hernando's arguments: that it, rather than the PSC, should regulate the utility.

Hernando had also tried negotiating with Skyland to allow the county to do the regulating.

Those talks broke down last month, Assistant County Attorney Jeff Kirk wrote in an e-mail to County Administrator David Hamilton and others:

"Skyland's counsel has — in essence — told us 'hell NO' to three of our five key conditions,'' Kirk wrote. These included a proposed restriction on "bulk sales out of county.''

One other thing happened. In December, Evans asked for a change to Hernando's comprehensive plan that would have allowed it to build 168 houses on its land in rural Spring Lake.

County planners said they didn't think the development should be approved. Evans withdrew the request, which took away a possible use for at least some of the water.

So, doesn't all this make a water grab — excuse me, bulk water sales — seem more likely?

No, Edwards said this week. Serving residential development on Evans property was always near the bottom of the list of possible uses for the water.

Near the top is serving farms, possibly ones growing biofuel sources such as castor beans, as well as the factories to process them. Though he didn't rule out bulk water sales, he said: "I don't think it's very likely at this point.''

Skyland would face opposition from the community, he said. And though Evans already has the right to pump nearly 3 million gallons of water a day in the two counties, it would also have to go through the very difficult process of getting permission from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to sell this water elsewhere.

Okay, but this will soon get easier if lawmakers act on a Senate staff recommendation to create a statewide authority to ease the shipping of water throughout Florida. In fact, if Skyland gets its license later this year, which should happen unless the counties prevail, its timing will be perfect.

Think about the thousands of homes approved for eastern Hernando County that will need to draw water from this same general area as Skyland. Think of how the pumping for St. Petersburg and Pinellas County drained Pasco's lakes in the 1990s. Think of the cities and counties in tapped-out Central Florida that are desperate for water.

You will see then that Kirk is right to be worried about the possibility of a water grab. And so should we all.

Skyland's water idea should concern us all 02/16/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 6:55pm]

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