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Withlacoochee water board wants a permanent office, staff for agency

INVERNESS — The time has come to ramp up the agency that will develop the region's water supplies, the agency's board agreed late Wednesday.

Board members unanimously approved creating a permanent office and staff for the Withlacoochee Regional Water Supply Authority using money from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and local governments that are part of the agency.

The board's vote is not the last word on the matter, however. First, the board will meet with Swiftmud's governing board Monday to discuss the all-important financial questions. The board wants Swiftmud to put up $2-million over the next five years to make the authority's staff full time and to set up a regional office in Inverness.

Also, it was unclear to the participants Wednesday what would happen if any of the member counties opted out. The majority of the Hernando County Commission, for example, on Tuesday opposed taking the authority from contract labor to full-time staffers.

The authority includes Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties, as well as Ocala. On Wednesday, the board voted unanimously to let Marion County back into the group.

The larger issues among some at the meeting went beyond the bureaucratic questions to the actual mission of the authority, which is to envision and create new sources of water for the growing counties.

Al Grubman, president of the environmental group TOOFAR, objected to a suggestion that water from the Withlacoochee River be diverted during flood periods into reservoirs to hold for inevitable dry times.

The river, he explained, rises and falls on a regular basis and feeds the extensive Citrus County Tsala Apopka lake chain. Steering it to holding areas would damage the natural water systems.

Grubman said a desalination plant is the best long-range answer for the region.

"Let's get it from desal and not steal from Citrus County to rebuild everyone else,'' he said.

Hernando County resident Jay Rowden said why not get to the real root of the problem: Unbridled growth.

Rowden, whose wife, Diane Rowden, is a Hernando County commissioner and member of the water authority board, said the board should find a way to get newcomers to finance the authority.

It is this projected growth that is driving the need for new sources of water, said authority executive director Jack Sullivan. Sullivan, who now works as a contract director, has said that a full-time agency would be better able to plan and finance the search for water sources.

Funding now comes from member governments that pay 20 cents per capita, and Sullivan has proposed raising that over the next five years to 25 cents.

As for the Hernando commissioners' concerns that the plan is more bureaucracy when taxpayers are demanding smaller, more streamlined government, Commissioner Rowden said those opponents should have been at the meeting.

"If you really want to have some say then this is where you need to be,'' she said. Water board chairwoman Rose Rocco agreed. "Those who were most vocal are the ones who haven't been at these meetings at all,'' she said.

"I think it's time to fish or cut bait here tonight,'' said water board member Gary Bartell. "I'm as opposed as any of you to bureaucracy, but I say to myself, what are the alternatives?''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Withlacoochee water board wants a permanent office, staff for agency 03/20/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 21, 2008 1:21pm]
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