BROOKSVILLE — Strewn across Hernando County in developments big and small are tens of thousands of vacant lots where homes one day will be built. Each one will need, and expect, a ready supply of fresh water for cooking, drinking and irrigation.
But in the next 15 to 20 years, groundwater alone will not be able to meet demand, says Jack Sullivan, director of the Withlacoochee Regional Water Supply Authority. Some areas of Hernando County, such as Weeki Wachee, are already nearing that point, he notes.
The solution, Sullivan and others say, lies in taking a regional approach to the problem. Alternative water sources, such as a possible desalination plant in Citrus County, or using water from Lake Rousseau on the Citrus-Levy border, must be addressed.
Hernando County commissioners on Tuesday are scheduled to discuss the topic. Specifically, they will take up a proposal by Sullivan that the Water Authority move to the next level. That means a full-time agency, with him in charge.
For 25 years, Sullivan has led the authority as a contract director, but he recently told his board they need a permanent director, a staff and an office to focus on developing water sources. He suggested that funds for the office and staff could come from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, and by tweaking other revenue sources.
Commissioner Rose Rocco, a Water Authority board member, supports the notion of regional water planning.
"We've got regional planning going into everything,'' she said, noting that community planning and transportation also are handled with a regional view of the bigger picture. "We don't want to have water wars. We want to find ways to work together.''
Now is the time, Rocco said, to bring on a staff "who can really steer the ship.''
Commissioner Dave Russell, also a member of the Water Authority board, is not convinced of the need for another full-time regional planning office.
"We have a significant number of redundancies here,'' he said. "We have Swiftmud, the basin boards and the regional planning council.'' Besides, he said, it's Swiftmud's job already to make sure water is available.
The Water Authority, which meets Wednesday to further discuss Sullivan's proposal, includes Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties as well as the city of Ocala. Marion County is considering entering back into the authority.
With so many governments involved that are looking out for their own interests, Russell doubts whether a regional approach will work.
"How many times have we heard from a county, 'You're going to have to go over my cold, dead body' to take my water,'' he said. "It's going to come down to water and turf."
But Sullivan argues that by strengthening the authority, the resources will be better protected. "We'll be in a much better stance for warding off folks wanting to come in here'' to take the region's water, he said.
A regional plan will signal to those communities longing for the region's water resources, "we may not need it today but we'll need it five years from now, 10 years from now,'' he said.
When Citrus County commissioners discussed Sullivan's proposal last week, they also had questions but they were interested, too.
"The authority needs a face and it needs a permanent, centrally located home,'' said Citrus County Commissioner Dennis Damato.
Finding money to develop alternative water sources was a big part of the discussion. "It's become abundantly clear in the last three or four years that (state) money was not going to local governments'' for water projects, said Citrus County Commissioner Gary Bartell.
Bartell said he supports the concept of strengthening the water authority but he does worry about some of the details.
He is not as sure as Sullivan that Citrus has water resources to share. Bartell said that once the process of setting minimum flows and levels on area waterways is done, he believes the county will find "we don't have as much water as has been portrayed in the past.
"Everyone is trying to protect their water,'' said Citrus County Commission Chairwoman Joyce Valentino.
"I'd have no problem helping a sister county with water supply if they aren't taking advantage of the situation and just developing, liking the tax dollars, knowing they did not have water and going to another county to get it,'' Valentino said.
Citrus Commissioner Vicki Phillips agreed that a true regional authority was a good idea. But she warned that fast-growing Sumter County is part of this region. In a regional water authority, she said, "Everybody is going to be competing.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.