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Water for everyone

When roughly 2-million people in the same place want water, the easiest way to make sure everyone gets it is to share. For roughly 17 years, that has been one of the goals of the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority. This week, the authority has a chance to help fulfill it. The opportunity is called Cypress Bridge. It is a $165-million plan for new wells and a pipeline system that would link together St. Petersburg, Tampa, Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough water systems. Water could run both ways, much like an electrical power grid, dispensing to any given user on any given day. The cities and counties will pay for the system based on their need, and will pay for use at a common rate.

Most important, the plan would tie the members together in a legal way that has not existed to date: It would say that water is a regional commodity, and all should share equally in it.

Meeting to consider the plan last week, members of the authority moved carefully, as they should. It did not help that their staff was so late in developing the details and wording of such a far-reaching document. But the members seem to agree on the general principles, which in itself is a breakthrough.

Part of what drives this new sense of cooperation is convenience. The governments that surround Tampa Bay are finding more and more in common, as intense development spreads from the urban centers of Tampa and St. Petersburg all the way through Pasco. As that new development brings new people, each government needs water for them to drink.

That said, the authority still is wrestling with the toughest of its regional water policies. Does the region turn too quickly to the water-rich lands of Pasco?

The question is a delicate one, and authority members seem to recognize that. Already, each of the members has agreed to a regional pact against one locale independently exploring for water in another locale. That's a significant step, and one designed to protect primarily Pasco. The next one is trickier. To assure that Pasco doesn't become the water supply of first choice, the proposed agreement would give the Pasco County Commission the chance to reject poorly conceived water expansion plans by the authority. The authority could over-ride the Pasco action, if permission is "unreasonably withheld," but the authority would have to prove that the water needs could not be met more economically and more safely elsewhere.

That so-called "veto" provision is indeed a big step, but Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher argues that it is an important signal to send to his county. "Our intent is to make sure that they don't just turn to Pasco out of convenience," Gallagher says.

With the new Cypress Bridge wellfields and expansion of other existing Pasco fields, the authority may find the veto is not all that relevant. Though the provision does skew the regional spirit of the agreement, it is also a very real political factor in the region's development of water resources. Pasco deserves assurance that its resources will be respected. And, in fact, the Pasco commission already has shown a commendable regional awareness in its support of Cypress Bridge.

With the support of Hillsborough Commissioner Phyllis Busansky, who is the water authority's chairwoman, and Pinellas Commissioner Charles Rainey, who is its founding member, the Cypress Bridge plan will succeed Friday. The dividend to such an agreement will be great. In essence, the people who live in the three counties will have access to a regional bucket of water that holds 300-million gallons of water every day. That's what regionalism means, and what sharing is all about.