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Pinellas County commissioners aren't sole authorities on water

Whoever is elected the newest county commissioner will have a good bit of power over the way Pinellas residents get their water and how much they pay for it.

County government, oftentimes a relatively obscure bureaucracy, is a key water supplier for most of Pinellas. County commissioners set water rates, decide how to get new resources of water and set rules about how water can be used.

But they're not the sole authorities on water. In fact, the county fits into a complicated web of government agencies that deal with water. Here's a brief rundown on the agencies and their responsibilities:

Southwest Florida Water Management District. This is a regional agency, set up by the state with board members appointed by the governor. Swiftmud is responsible for protecting water resources and the environment in a 16-county area.

It controls water supply by issuing or denying permits to businesses, farmers and public water agencies. Swiftmud also can order cuts in pumping from wells if the pumping creates an emergency.

Swiftmud does more than just regulate. It also encourages conservation by handing out grants for things like planting low-water gardens and developing reclaimed water systems. Swiftmud gets its money from property taxes.

West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority. This is the public water supplier in the Tampa Bay area. It is an alliance among governments in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties to develop and share water resources.

It is controlled by a board of elected officials from the member governments: the three county commissions, plus the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg. The agency has no direct taxing authority; its bills are paid by the member governments, which levy taxes.

West Coast and its members operate 10 well fields in the region; eight serve Pinellas, said Bruce Kennedy, West Coast's director. Those wells are in northeast Pinellas, northwest Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

The authority decides how to develop new water resources for the entire area. One current initiative involves building a pipe system to connect its wellfields to each other to better balance supply and demand, Kennedy said.

Pinellas County Commission. The five-member body sells water to 101,500 homes and businesses. It also acts as a wholesaler, selling water to city governments in Clearwater, Pinellas Park, Oldsmar, Safety Harbor and Tarpon Springs. Only St. Petersburg, Dunedin and Belleair residents are unaffected by the county's decisions about water _ those cities operate their own water systems.

The county sets rates for water. Commissioners were poised to raise rates more than 30 percent last month but then backed off, saying the matter needed more study. They're scheduled to decide on the matter in December.

The county can also issue rules about water use _ it did so in May, cutting lawn watering hours to stop the drop in well levels.

How do these agencies relate to each other?

The short answer is: not that well.

Swiftmud, citing what it calls environmental damage near wellfields because of excessive pumping, has issued emergency orders cutting back the amount of water West Coast can pump from its wells from 121-million gallons a day to 116-million. West Coast argues that the lingering drought is to blame _ not pumping _ and has sued to prevent the cutback order from taking effect. Pinellas has joined that lawsuit on West Coast's side.

Swiftmud also has said in draft reports that it may have to cut back pumping permanently by 75 percent. That terrifies county officials, who envision a screeching halt to growth and skyrocketing water rates.

Both West Coast and Pinellas filed several lawsuits against Swiftmud to try to prevent the implementation of the cutbacks.

Commissioner Charles Rainey also has been a leading force in the push for a statewide water distribution system. So far, that effort is at the research stage.

Swiftmud disagrees with that idea, concerned about the potential harm to the environment of sucking water out of rural areas to pipe to urban places. Swiftmud pushes for more aggressive use of reclaimed water and desalinated water.

There is an effort under way to mediate the disputes. Elected officials from around Tampa Bay have begun meeting with the staff from both West Coast and Swiftmud. The first substantive meeting is scheduled for today.

But the essence of the dispute remains the same. Regulators want to protect the environment. Suppliers want to provide cheap water.