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The man with his hand on the faucet

Water comes out of your faucet because Pete Hubbell and his bosses say it will. They tell you whether you can water your lawn.

They tell you whether you can dig a well.

They tell you whether the building you're planning is okay.

They control all the water in west-central Florida. No city or county or other state agency can overrule them.

They have a name so cumbersome it will only be mentioned here once:

The Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Its initials are SWFMD. Understandably, it has come to be known as "Swiftmud," even though mud, like government, is not always swift.

Based in Brooksville, area politicians having long blocked a move to Tampa, the district is not universally loved, even if Hubbell is a nice guy. Everybody's mad about something.

For most of us in the Tampa Bay area, the current thing to be mad about is water restrictions.

What about it, Pete? You're the executive director of that outfit. Hasn't it been raining an awful lot lately? When can we turn on the sprinklers?

Hubbell winces. He gets asked that a lot.

Maybe, he replies carefully, Swiftmud's board will consider loosening up when it meets at the end of the month.

It's true that we've had more rain than average lately. But we're still catching up from a string of dry years.

And rain is all we have. It is the only way to replenish those vast, underground freshwater seas called aquifers, the source of almost all our water.

In an average year, 53 inches of rain fall across Swiftmud's 16-county area, from Lake to Charlotte counties.

Last year, only 39 inches fell.

The last two years represent the second-driest two-year period on record, the driest since 1955-56.

If that weren't bad enough, at least a third of Swiftmud's territory is on the caution list, in danger of pumping water faster than it can be replenished.

Nobody knows for sure how much is too much, not even Swiftmud, which is only now figuring "safe yields."

Swiftmud is cracking down. New permits are harder to come by and, in some areas, aren't being issued at all.

Meanwhile, the district is putting new emphasis on reclaimed water, conservation and desalination.

"The days of just going inland and knocking down a new hole to meet our water demands are over," Hubbell says.

We've been water pigs.

Each of us in Swiftmud's area uses an average of 150 gallons of water a day. In some parts of parched California, residents are being forced to get by on 50.

Swiftmud, waving a big stick over cities and counties, intends to reduce that to 140 gallons per day by 1997, and to 130 gallons per day a few years later.

Naturally, there's controversy.

Some people think such plans only encourage a "y'all-come" philosophy.

Some people think Swiftmud is being too accommodating to agriculture.

Water-rich counties such as Pasco are wary of being taken advantage of by their thirsty neighbors. (An important deal among bay area governments may be struck later this week.)

Some people think Swiftmud ought to be combined with the state's four other districts into one mammoth board.

The slogan of these critics is "accountability." Who does Swiftmud answer to now, they ask?

Not to you, the taxpayer _ not directly, anyway _ even though Swiftmud taxes you at the rate of 0.4 mills, or 40 cents for each $1,000 of your home's value. Even though it now has an annual budget of $120-million and 700 employees.

Swiftmud is run by an 11-member board appointed by the governor. One supposes if the voters didn't like Swiftmud, they could throw out the governor, but that doesn't seem likely.

Hubbell, 38, who lives in the Carrollwood area of Tampa, and is partial to rugby and sailing, says he has heard the criticisms, but doesn't agree with them.

A state water board isn't a magic answer, he argues. There's no magic water source waiting to be tapped.

"There still is politics," he says of the board. "But it's not at the level it would be if we had a group running for election every two or four years."

Hubbell peers up at the Hernando County sky, which is turning black.

He smiles.

"I'm looking forward to my first flooding complaint," he says.

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