Two Pinellas County commissioners gazed into their crystal ball and saw something no one else contemplates: a possible return to the bad old days of the Tampa Bay regional water wars. So commissioners Norm Roche and John Morroni urged residents this week to rise up to oppose any sale of land Pinellas purchased in Pasco County decades ago in case Pinellas needs its own water again. These are baseless fears stirred up by two incumbents seeking re-election who are beginning to lose the argument on the commission over selling the land to Pasco County.
Pinellas purchased the 8,200-acre Cross Bar ranch in 1976 and adjacent 4,200-acre Al Bar in 1990. By 1980, a well field was pumping water for Pinellas on Cross Bar, but wells never were drilled on Al Bar. While Pinellas County owns the land, the 17 Cross Bar wells are owned by Tampa Bay Water, the nonprofit regional water supply authority created in 1998 by Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey. Tampa Bay Water owns the region's water sources, sells the water to its member governments, and reinvests the proceeds in developing new water sources. The agency has strict limits on groundwater pumping to prevent environmental damage like Pinellas' pumping once caused in Pasco.
The expensive and damaging competition for water ended with Tampa Bay Water's creation. But Roche and Morroni last week tried to persuade fellow commissioners to keep the Pasco land in case the water truce falls apart. Chairwoman Karen Seel joined them, but a four-member majority chose to let Pasco get an appraisal of the land so at least they can make an informed decision. In response, Roche and Morroni held their news conference and called for a November referendum that would forbid sale of the land.
Their kind of parochial thinking belongs in the past. The future lies in sharing water resources and developing alternative water supplies — reservoirs and desalination, for example — not groundwater pumping. If a water crisis occurred, Pinellas couldn't rely on its Pasco land for water. It would first have to get permits and develop a well field — a couple of years' delay at least. Last year the Cross Bar wells produced 13.1 million gallons per day, but Pinellas requires 50 million. If Pinellas pumped more, Pasco surely wouldn't stand by while its water table was drained.
The ranchland could be a great recreational resource for Pasco, which is why Pasco wants to buy it. Pinellas doesn't need 12,400 acres in another county. It does need cash — it has $10 million of unfunded water projects and another $20 million worth that could be accelerated with the proceeds of the land sale. Getting an appraisal is the correct next step, and Roche and Morroni should stop appealing to Pinellas parochialism by stoking baseless fears about a water shortage.