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Pay now or pay later for water problems

In three weeks, Citrus County voters will decide whether to raise the sales tax from 6 to 7 cents on the dollar to raise money to help clean the county's waterways.

It's a tough decision. Voters are asking themselves: Is our water quality so threatened that we need to spend millions of tax dollars to save it, especially now, when every nickel counts?

For anyone who bothers to seek the facts, the answer is a resounding yes. But not everyone does. For them, something more obvious is needed. A sign from above, perhaps.

Last weekend, they got one. The skies opened for several days and millions of gallons of rainwater cascaded onto the county.

Low-lying areas and homes were flooded. Sinkholes formed in roads and under houses. Instant streams of pollutant-laden stormwater poured into the rivers and canals. Pumping stations were overwhelmed.

People got a perfect view of why stormwater and drainage projects can be ignored no longer, and that's just the half of it. Don't forget the critical matter of sewage treatment.

It's hard sometimes for people to grasp the magnitude of the problem. After all, the water from the tap tastes fine (especially to those newcomers used to chewing water from northern utilities), the toilets all flush, and when you drive past the lakes and rivers, they look okay.

But pollution isn't always so obvious, although you might have noticed the water weeds are blooming stronger than ever. Increased levels of nitrates and nutrients in your drinking water show up in less visible ways.

There was a time when no one in Citrus worried much about water. Sure, there were huge puddles after storms, but eventually the ground absorbed it or it was diverted into canals. In the subdivisions, there were always some vacant lot where the runoff could collect.

Those days are fading fast. Rainwater now bounces off new ribbons of asphalt, carrying oil, anti-freeze and other fluids into your well water. Septic systems that have been in use since Chief Osceola's time do little more than slow down the flow of sewage into the waterways.

There are many questions about the referendum: Should the county buy low-lying land for use as retention ponds? Should there be a countywide sewage treatment system, or can septics do the job? Should the county be in the utility business at all? Does this affect Rolling Oaks utility? Can those who paid a premium to hook into the Crystal River system get a break?

A citizens group, the Surface Water Quality Committee, studied the issue and reported to the county commissioners. The group also recommended that the county look to the sales tax as a way to pay the estimated $69-million costs.

The commissioners are asking voters, what should we do?

This referendum couldn't have come at a worse time. Money is tight, and those few extra pennies spent on sales tax add up.

The public is also wary, rightly so, of giving government the authority to collect another $6-million a year for the next seven years. The county's track record on handling our money hardly inspires confidence.

Fact is, county staff and others have been wrestling with this monster for some time, long enough to know where the key problems areas are.

The money collected could be paired with state and federal matching funds for such projects as wastewater treatment in Gospel Islands, Floral City, Beverly Hills, Hernando, Homosassa and Chassahowitzka; and for drainage projects in the Highlands, Beverly Hills, Crystal Manor and Floral City.

Don't think that just because you vote "no" on the referendum the water problems are going to fade like yesterday's rain. They must be addressed, and the bills will likely be paid through such means as special assessments, taxing districts or property tax increases.

If you live in any of the above project areas and would like to pay the entire cost yourself, rather than look to a sales tax increase that everyone will pay, shoot down the referendum.

But remember, this is the real question facing voters Nov. 3: Do we start saving our water now, using a means that spreads the cost evenly, or do we wait until later, when the crisis is worse and the cost higher?