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Swiftmud moves to save lakes

After hearing hours of testimony Tuesday on the harm that overpumped water well fields can have on lakes, wetlands and aquifers, the governing board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District approved an array of measures to reverse the environmental declines.

But don't look out the window or turn on the spigot and expect anything different just yet. Months _ perhaps years _ of bargaining sessions, lawsuits and administrative hearings lie ahead of any noticeable changes.

Still, in its own bureaucratic way, the Swiftmud board and its staff has made a stand. In a 10-1 vote, the board approved:

Filing a lawsuit against the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, alleging that Tampa Bay's chief supplier of drinking water has violated the terms of its permit to pump water from beneath north-central Pasco County.

The pumping was so intense that it has drained or nearly destroyed many of the water bodies on and around the water authority's huge Cross Bar Well Field in central Pasco.

Requiring West Coast and St. Petersburg to limit pumping at their Cosme-Odessa Well Field in northwest Hillsborough County to no more than 8.4-million gallons of water a day, the facility's daily average in recent years.

Residents near the well field have said for years that Cosme-Odessa has been sucking the surrounding environment dry and has seriously lowered lake levels.

Declaring a water shortage, an order designed to kick off an array of serious water conservation programs, everything from stepped-up enforcement of the current yard sprinkling restrictions to pumping ground water into lakes to avoid further environmental destruction.

To nobody's surprise after the vote, however, officials from West Coast and St. Petersburg said they will appeal the last two actions, effectively putting them on hold until a series of administrative reviews have been met. That could take months or years.

The only dissenting Swiftmud board member was retired Bradenton newspaper editor John Hamner. He has typically supported stronger actions on behalf of the environment than those approved Tuesday.

Hamner, a handful of other board members and several residents who claim the well fields have harmed their lakes and lands, said that the plan finally approved was a weakened version of earlier staff proposals to protect water bodies.

That was the position of board member Margaret Sistrunk, a Hillsborough citrus grower surrounded by well fields.

"It is with regret that we leave here today with nothing significantly changed, in my opinion," she said.