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Pinellas, Pasco near water pact

Pinellas and Pasco county officials have reached a tentative compromise that could open the way for a historic agreement to provide water for the Tampa Bay region well into the future. The compromise is expected to resolve differences between the two counties that for years have blocked a proposed $160-million water project called Cypress Bridge. With miles of new pipeline stretching through Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, the project is expected to ensure an adequate and more reliable water supply for the next 70 years for the five area governments, Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, in the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority.

Pasco County Attorney Ben Harrill said Pasco officials agreed to a proposal set forth on Monday by Pinellas County Commissioner Charles Rainey "in order to get the agreement moving." Rainey could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

For years, the authority has tried to find a way to ensure an adequate water supply for everyone, but could not overcome the rift between Pinellas and Pasco.

Pasco County officials have sought assurance that the major water supplies that lie under Pasco County would be protected from raids by other counties. Officials in Pinellas County, which lacks substantial underground water supplies, have insisted on an agreement that would prevent Pasco from blocking access to the water there.

The new agreement would give Pasco control over the development of wells in most of the county, but would allow Pinellas to build new wells in two well fields without Pasco's permission.

The authority is expected to vote on the contract during an emergency meeting later this week.

The contract would have to be ratified by the commissions and councils of the five participating governments.

The authority had hoped to approve the Cypress Bridge agreement last Friday, but Pinellas and Pasco officials failed to reach agreement on a critical point as they had several times in the past.

The tension between the two counties dates back to the "water wars" of the 1970s, which led the state to order the formation of the regional water supply authority.

Under the compromise, Pasco County officials will retain the right to refuse to the development of new water supplies in Pasco. But in deference to Pinellas County's concerns, new water supplies can be developed in two well fields _ Cypress Creek and Cross Bar _ without the express consent of Pasco officials.

"That would mean the authority would not have to seek the approval of the Pasco County board for those two particular facilities," said Harrill, Pasco's attorney.

But Harrill said Pasco will retain the right to challenge proposed permits for new wells in those two well fields for environmental reasons. In other words, Pasco won't be able simply to refuse to allow new wells there, but the county will be able to object to permits being issued by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, if county officials feel environmental concerns exist.

Cypress Bridge is considered necessary because a faulty pipeline and water shortages have interrupted water supplies to Pinellas and Hillsborough counties several times in recent years.

The new pipelines would form a giant loop. Because water could move either way through the system, all areas included in the agreement would be able to get emergency water from an alternative source if a problem occurred within the normal water route.