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Mining ordinance plan fails to pump in water use

The proposed new Hernando County mining ordinance is a bulky document that delves into the minute details of complex issues such as blasting regulations and reclamation.

But to the mines' opponents, perhaps its most significant feature is one notable item that it omits _ water use.

Land and freshwater are the two limited resources that are essential for development, said Doug Bevins, the lawyer representing Citizens for a Responsible Mining Ordinance. Because of the amount of water the mines are allowed to pump, making decisions about mining without considering water use threatens the growth of the entire county.

"The issue is not that we should regulate water. The issue is that we have to take it into account for all development," he said. "It's potentially the most important issue in the county's future in the next 100 years."

Or, as CARMO member Sally Sevier put it: "If a developer comes up here to put in a fair- to moderate-sized subdivision, and finds out there are no more (water) use permits available, where do we go from there?"

The concern arises because Hernando's rock mines have permits allowing them to pump a combined 41-million gallons of water a day, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District. That represents nearly half the total for all uses: 91-million gallons.

According to mining interests, CARMO's concern overlooks three essential facts: The mines actually use less than half the water that Swiftmud allows them; Swiftmud says there is no shortage of groundwater in Hernando County; and the county has no legal right to regulate water use, said Jake Varn, the lawyer representing the Hernando Mining Association.

"Believe me, I've litigated that issue. I know," Varn said.

Varn, Bevins and Grant Tolbert, manager of the county's Development Department, have been working together since last fall to write the new draft.

For most of that time _ in fact for most of the nearly two years since the original draft of the ordinance was introduced _ it was thought that monitoring water use would be an important function of the ordinance.

But at the last meeting among the three in April, Tolbert decided to eliminate water use from the ordinance. He did so, he said last week, partly because the county's environmental planner, Kathy Liles, told him that water quantity was not a key concern in the county.

Also, he said he was convinced by Varn's opinion that the county had no legal right to regulate water use.

Bevins agrees the county does not have the right to directly regulate use. But that is not what he has proposed, he said. He wants the county to consider the amount of water being used before it issues permits for development. That power it does have, he said.

"I'd like the county to be able to say, "Hey, do we have enough water to renew this permit?' It's that simple," Bevins said.

John Parker, the Swiftmud official who supervises the mines' water permits, said he was not sure of the county's legal rights. "But certainly my advice to the county is that (Swiftmud has) very extensive rules on water use. If the county wants to be more effective, they should regulate the things that we don't," he said.

Parker, upholding the stand of his employer, shares Liles' belief that there is no long-term shortage of groundwater in the county. That is a key argument supporting the mines' contention that the Swiftmud regulations are more than adequate.

But it is also a point that an increasing number of people _ those who have seen changes in the county's landscape _ are starting to question. They point to forests dotted with meadows where once there were ponds, receding levels in the county's lakes, dried-up wells, and brackish water creeping farther up freshwater rivers.

Those changes have not occurred during the past few years of low rainfall, but during the last 15 of rapid developing and increased pumping.

Those who question whether Swiftmud is right about the county's groundwater are leery of allowing the agency to have complete control over monitoring the mines' use of it.

Swiftmud acknowledges its hydrologic reports last year showed that many of the lakes, rivers and wells it monitored reached all-time lows. But, Parker said, that is because of a three-year drought that ended last year.

"I do not want to be quoted saying that pumping has no effect," he said. "But I stand by the position that the most important factor is deficit rainfall. If you look at the period from 1989 through 1992, it is the worst in 30 years. That is not disputable."

What is open to argument is the question of whether groundwater levels have been permanently depleted. That is especially tricky to determine because the effects of pumping now might not be seen for several years. That is one reason water use must be regulated especially conservatively, said B. A. Christensen, a professor in the civil engineering department at the University of Florida.

Hernando County's failure to include water use in its mining ordinance, he said, "is shortsighted. . . . Groundwater flows very slowly. It may take five years to see what harm you have done.

"There is no doubt that pumping from these mining operations will lower groundwater levels and, therefore, increase the level of saltwater intrusion."

But according to Bill Walton of Florida Rock Industries Inc., the pumping at the mines ultimately has little effect on the county's groundwater.

Most of the water used at Florida Rock, as at the other mines in the county, goes to rinse clay and other impurities from the crushed limerock. Afterward, the water is collected in a pond where the impurities settle to the bottom. It then flows to a holding pond, from which it is pumped back to the rinsing process.

Florida Rock has permits allowing it to use 6.15-million gallons a day. Over the past year, it has actually used an average of 2.5-million per day, according to Swiftmud.

But, Walton said, because that water flows into the holding pond, much of it eventually seeps through the ground into the aquifer.

"We consider that a second form of recycling water," Walton said.

Parker said the mines' water-use permits regularly come up for review, and that in recent years, the amount they have been allowed to pump has been consistently lowered.

But, Bevins points out that the mines still use a huge amount of water. And according to Christensen, it is not primarily a development issue, but a life-quality issue.

The amounts of groundwater and surface water are directly linked. In the spring-fed Weeki Wachee River, water flow has been down in recent years because there is less pressure in the aquifer.

"You now have saltwater as far upriver as Rogers Park," Christensen said.

Likewise, said Eddie Duval of the state Division of Forestry, the springs that used to dot the Withlacoochee State Forest have virtually dried up. The birds and other wildlife that depended on them are fewer because of it.

And rivers like the Withlacoochee will not stay full when the aquifer beneath it is depleted. Swiftmud compares it to trying to hold water in a colander when the sink is empty.

"It's been a real problem," said Debby Blust, who runs the Canoe Outpost on the Withlacoochee River in Nobleton.

"Whenever we did get the river up high, it just drops feet at a time, which of course it never used to do at all," she said.

"Years ago, people would call and say, "Are you going to have water in two or three weeks?' And we could say, "Sure.' Now it drops like crazy, sometimes overnight."