For the promise of drinking water, Pinellas County has purchased more than six square miles of Pasco County for $5.5-million. Tuesday's surprise deal left Pasco officials upset and confused, but the Pinellas County Commission said it wanted the 4,092-acre Al Bar Ranch in north Pasco County as a future source of ground water for Pinellas residents, all of whom live at least 15 miles to the southwest.
Neither Pasco, state water regulators nor Tampa Bay's largest water supplier were aware that a deal was imminent, they said Tuesday.
Even more upsetting, Pasco officials said, is that the purchase sounded like a betrayal of the Tampa Bay region's rocky but ongoing plans to jointly develop future water supplies. Those
plans, extending well into the 21st century, make no mention of Tuesday's purchase.
Pinellas officials said they have not abandoned the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, created by the state Legislature 15 years ago to end the so-called "water wars" _ a series of disputes among Tampa Bay governments over access to drinking water. The main battleground was Pasco and Hillsborough counties, where Pinellas County and the city of St. Petersburg had purchased thousands of acres and sunk dozens of huge wells to provide millions of gallons of water each day.
"I can't say that it's going to be a return to the water wars, but I just think that this is a step backward," Pasco County Commission Chairman Curtis Law said Tuesday. "I guess we'll have to wait until we see what direction they're going to head off in."
There's no rush, said the head of the Pinellas water system, but the direction will be the enlargement of the adjacent Cross Bar Well Field, the 8,100-acre ranch that each day provides enough drinking water for more than 150,000 people, most of them Pinellas residents.
"We have no plans to go out tomorrow and start doing anything with it, but we just bought a piece of land at a good price for a future use as a well field," said Art Finney, director of the Pinellas water system.
Finney said Pinellas bought the Cross Bar Ranch in the mid-1970s, then turned it over to the West Coast water authority to operate.
That misses the point, Pasco officials said. Their county is already home to some of the largest water well fields in the state. More than 30,000 acres _ or about 50 square miles _ of Pasco yield more than 75-million gallons of water daily.
But while Pasco has lots of ground water, it has relatively few people _ about 250,000 full-time residents compared to almost 900,000 for Pinellas.
New residents streamed into Pinellas throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s, attracted by white beaches and ocean access on three sides. But as more people moved in to Pinellas, Florida's most densely populated county, it began searching outside its borders for water.
Law and other Pasco officials say access to drinking water is the primary need in real estate development. Pasco will not develop and broaden its tax base as Pinellas and Hillsborough have been allowed to do if the water is not locally available in the future.
The disagreement between Pasco and Pinellas is the latest episode in decades of feuding over access to drinking water.
The two counties at times have been reluctant partners with Hillsborough County and the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa in the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority.
In fact, an ambitious plan by West Coast to provide more water to Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties is now undergoing final scrutiny by state water regulators.
West Coast also operates day-to-day the region's largest water utility system, drawing water from well fields in Pasco and Hillsborough counties, then pumping the water to local governments for sale to residents and businesses.
Even though Pinellas, Tampa and St. Petersburg are members of the water authority, they also independently operate their own water systems, including well fields.
The well fields are spread over such vast tracts of land because of the potential for long-term environmental damage, both above and below the ground.
Even though water is being pumped from the same aquifer, experience has shown that it is better to draw relatively moderate amounts of water from a number of wells over a wide area than to pump a few wells intensely. If too much water is removed too quickly, wetland and lake habitats on the surface can dry up.
Pasco officials fear Pinellas' purchase of the Al Bar Ranch would simply aggravate such problems.
The ranch is about two miles east of U.S. 41 and three miles north of State Road 52 in North Central Pasco. It extends north to the Pasco-Hernando county line.
Geologically, rainfall on the sandy terrain helps recharge the Floridan Aquifer, the region's main source of drinking water.
Pinellas is purchasing the ranch at a critical time: Florida's severe, 2-year-old water shortage has underscored the region's vulnerability to a lack of rainfall.