BROOKSVILLE — During a recent workshop, County Commissioner Wayne Dukes asked a top county utility official: If Hernando withdrew from the regional water supply authority, could the county still provide drinking water now and in the future?
"We will not fail,'' Environmental Services director Joe Stapf assured him.
But there is more to the story.
Dukes will ask his fellow board members on Tuesday to agree to pull out of the Withlacoochee Regional Water Supply Authority, saying he doesn't see the value in the county's involvement or in the $31,500 in dues paid each year.
Other officials disagree.
At the workshop this month, commissioners noted that Withlacoochee Authority had helped the county in its dispute with Skyland Utilities. With the recent disbanding of basin boards to advise the water management districts, they also were concerned about losing any more voice in regional water decisions.
Because the meeting was a workshop, the commission couldn't vote on membership at the time.
Now is a critical time for the county's future water use as Hernando negotiates a new water use permit with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud.
Swiftmud is pushing to lower the amount that the county withdraws from its western Hernando wells from the permitted 24.39 million gallons per day to 22.713 gallons. Swiftmud also wants the county to find alternative water sources to supply the heavily populated Spring Hill area.
Stapf said one possibility is to develop a new well field on the property of the planned Quarry Preserve development north of Brooksville. That is the zone where new water sources should be located, he said.
There are also plans to expand the water pumping in the Seville development in northwest Hernando, where the county expects a significant contribution from the developer to build a water plant. Plans for that project are complete and the county staff is working on the funding.
Eventually, the county will run water lines from those new sources into Spring Hill and that is an activity where membership in the Withlacoochee Authority can help, Stapf said. If Hernando is coordinating water production activities with surrounding counties, the authority might be willing to pay the cost of up-sizing the water mains.
About 80 percent of the county's population in the unincorporated areas are served by Hernando County utilities. The west Hernando permit covers about 127,000 customers.
The county is also finishing off the expansion of the Glen Wastewater Treatment Plant in northwest Hernando, which will provide more than 1 million gallons of reuse water per day for area golf courses or other uses. The county gets partial credit for producing reusable water, Stapf said.
The other key component in dropping water use is conservation and he said the authority helps there as well. For the $31,500 Hernando pays in dues, it receives a $48,150 grant for conservation programs, overseen by water conservation coordinator Alys Brockway.
Water use rules
By 2018, the county must meet the water-use criteria of no more than 150 gallons per day per person. In 2010, Hernando County's use was 144 gallons per person daily.
But some, including Brockway, worry about the impacts of the commission's decision earlier this year to loosen watering rules.
In May, the board agreed to stop enforcing the once-a-week watering rule so that residents who had replaced lawns or patches of lawns devastated by last year's winter cold could save their investments.
Last week, the commission approved an ordinance that will allow twice-weekly watering through November. The results will be evaluated then.
Water use has gone up slightly, but Stapf maintains that the county's water rate system will turn that around eventually. The higher the usage, the more expensive the water gets per gallon.
"It's going to hit (customers) enough in the pocketbook that it's going to reduce their use,'' Stapf said.
Dukes said he understands the conservation element is important, but he hopes that another funding source can be found for that program, possibly through Swiftmud.
That won't likely happen, Withlacoochee Authority executive director Jack Sullivan told Dukes at the workshop. Swiftmud prefers to provide funds for programs that are more regional. If the agency awards conservation money, it is more likely to give it to the authority than to a county that isn't part of the regional network.
Sullivan argued to the commissioners that they need the water authority. Comprised of Hernando, Citrus, Sumter and Marion counties and the cities within them, the authority is funded through membership fees, proceeds from its Citrus County well field and various grants.
"We're trying to extend the use of ground water as much as possible and the way you do that is conservation,'' Sullivan said. At some point, however, another water source will be needed and that is when cooperation among the counties is vital, he said.
There has been discussion of a desalination plant at Progress Energy's Crystal River power complex for long-range planning purposes. Hernando County needs to be part of those regional discussions because Hernando has no place for a major reservoir and will likely need outside water at some point, Sullivan said.
Backers of authority
Keeping the membership with the water authority was also supported by several of the citizens who spoke at the recent workshop, including former Commissioner Rose Rocco, who served for a time as the chairwoman of the authority board.
"It's important for the counties to work together for cost-effective results,'' Rocco said. She also urged commissioners to go to more meetings since most are members of the authority's governing board.
Janey Baldwin, a former basin board member, also asked to keep their membership.
"We have to decide what's more important, the money or the water,'' she said. "Without that authority, we have nothing. They've done away with the basin boards. Our clout is going to have to come from the authority.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.