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Water concerns at top of the list

When you're dying of thirst, it's awfully hard to build roads, prevent crime and cut taxes.

That's why Alan Schwartz says the most important issue facing Pinellas is the county's future water supply. People might want the government to do a lot of other stuff but, Schwartz says, first things first.

"Unless somebody on this planet comes up with an invention for its replacement, water certainly has to take priority over the things that are not life-supporting," said Schwartz, 68, a Palm Harbor resident.

Several Times readers agreed. Writing on clip-out coupons published in the paper during the campaign, about 100 readers ranked water as the third most important issue in the race for an open County Commission seat. The only issues (out of nine) receiving more votes were crime and growth management. Previous stories addressed candidates' positions on those issues.

The two politicians running for the seat in the Nov. 8 election, Republican Robert Stewart and Democrat Winnie Foster, both ranked water as their top issue when asked by the Times to fill out the same coupon.

Neither candidate could say exactly what the county should do to secure a stable water supply for the future. Foster says she wants big public meetings on the issue to help residents make up their minds. Stewart said it's a complicated matter.

"I'm not trying to hoodwink the public by saying I've got the solution," Stewart said.

But there are significant differences between the candidates in the way they approach the problem.

Foster wants the region to become self-sufficient. That is, she wants Pinellas and neighboring counties to rely less on expanding well fields and more on alternative sources like desalinated ocean water and cleaned-up sewer water (so-called reclaimed water).

She said this can be done by conserving the water we already have. She wants the government to look into ideas like reservoirs to hold the water that runs off streets during rainstorms.

"I believe we have the engineering expertise to get that kind of thing done," Foster said.

Stewart, on the other hand, wants Pinellas to pursue water wherever it can. While he also wants to conserve and make better use of reclaimed water, Stewart advocates a statewide water distribution system. Such a system could pipe water from, say, the Suwannee River area to Pinellas when the need arises.

Conservation can only go so far, Stewart said. The county needs to provide low-cost water to its residents, so it should fight to keep its supply of new water as robust as possible.

"We need to try to . . . work for a statewide water distribution system," Stewart said. "I understand there are legislative restrictions, but we need to work hand in hand with other governments to try to overcome those."

If you boil down what the candidates say, they represent two sides of a long-running argument. In essence, Foster takes the approach of water regulators, seeking to reduce consumption of underground water to protect the environment. Stewart sounds more like a water supplier, focusing on providing drinking water to the public at the lowest cost.

Stewart's approach fits neatly with the outlook of sitting county commissioners, who are all Republicans, and with the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority. Foster more closely reflects the mindset of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, which advocates strict conservation and regional water self-sufficiency.

Those two agencies surged to the headlines during the past year, as the levels in the underground wells supplying the Tampa Bay area dropped precipitously. Lakes around those wells _ primarily in Pasco and northwest Hillsborough counties _ dried up, bringing environmental damage and cries of protest from residents of those areas.

Exactly why that happened is the subject of lawsuits and considerable debate. Swiftmud contends that the public wells were pumping too much water, but West Coast _ and Pinellas County commissioners _ say the lingering drought was to blame.

Times readers with an interest in the issue found fault with both sides in the dispute.

"It concerns me that they're still bickering," said J. E. Alsten, 54, a teacher who lives in Largo.

Alsten said it only makes sense for a county surrounded by ocean water to move toward desalination _ and on that score, she agrees with Swiftmud. But she also thinks a statewide distribution system makes sense. That's a plan backed by water suppliers but opposed by Swiftmud.

"They did the Alaskan oil pipeline," Alsten said. "Why not water?"

Neither candidate fully embraces both sides of Alsten's point.

Foster is more disposed to exploring desalination.

"We ought to have a big public discussion about all the alternatives," Foster said, "not just pipelines running all over, sucking water from our neighbors."

Stewart, though, points immediately to the down side of desalination. The process creates a byproduct so salty that environmental regulators won't allow it to be dumped anywhere. Also, the plants are expensive to build _ county officials have estimated the cost of a big one around $100-million _ and to maintain.

The statewide distribution system, he said, is the better option to pursue, although he said such a system would have to be the responsibility of the state Legislature, not the County Commission.

"That's the most logical way to solve the problem " Stewart said.

Either way, both candidates concede that they're going to have to raise water rates in the near future to find other sources of water _ either new well fields, desalination plants or distribution systems from other parts of the state. Neither relishes that idea.

"We're going to have to get used to paying more for less," Stewart said.

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Clearwater resident Helen Chase asked the following question of County Commission candidates:

When will you begin to advocate desalination?

Here are the candidates' responses:

Winnie Foster

"I advocate desalination now," Foster said.

Foster said desalinated ocean water should supplement traditional water sources, not completely take over for them.

"But it needs to be in the mix," she said. "We need to be gaining experience with it."

The county should make sure to find the best and most inexpensive technology to remove the salt from ocean water _ and from underground brackish water, Foster said.

Foster conceded that current environmental regulations don't favor desalination, since permits cannot be obtained to dispose of the concentrated salty stuff that's produced when freshwater is removed.

But she said the public needs more information on the research on this issue so that the county can more aggressively pursue its options.

"I bet there are some experiments going on somewhere in this big, blue planet that we in Pinellas County don't know about yet," Foster said. "It would satisfy the public mind, if nothing else."

Foster said she would raise water rates to pay for improvements like desalination plants. The county estimates the costs of such plants at more than $100-million.

Foster said she would cut taxes and fees in other areas to make sure the total tax burden on residents remained the same. She could not name where those other cuts would come from.

Robert Stewart

"I've already begun to advocate desalination as one of the possible solutions," Stewart said. "But I'm not prepared to say it's the solution or even a solution."

Stewart wants the county to continue researching desalination. It would become a priority to pursue if technology develops so that it's cost-effective to operate a desalination plant. Currently, that's not the case, Stewart said, citing high costs and regulatory hurdles that face such a facility.

Also, Stewart said he would want to more aggressively pursue desalination only if the Legislature drops the idea of a statewide water distribution system. It makes more sense to pursue the statewide system first, since it is something that could be done through legislative change _ rather than technological advancement.

"But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be researching (desalination) and trying to solve the problem that way, too," Stewart said.