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In Pinellas water wars, tide turns toward truce

It is too early to declare an end to the water wars but prospects are improving.

State Sen. Jack Latvala announced Monday he has mediated several closed-door negotiations that resulted in basic agreements between two key players in the ongoing fight for freshwater _ Pinellas County and the regional water regulator, the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

"I'm very hopeful," said Utilities Director Pick Talley, who negotiated for Pinellas. "We're 90 percent of the way there."

The proposal will be presented to the board of governors of the district, also known as Swiftmud, this morning. The Pinellas commissioners will be briefed this afternoon, the St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday. West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority also will be briefed, although a date has not been set.

Latvala is uniquely positioned to be a mediator in this series of disputes that has spawned lawsuits the way a frontal system spawns tornadoes.

Half of his district lies in Pinellas County, an area which traditionally has had to turn to other jurisdictions for most of its freshwater needs, and half lies in Pasco, where heavy pumping from well fields has damaged lakes and parched wetlands.

"We have worked very hard to get an agreement," said Latvala, R-Palm Harbor. "One or two points are all that separates this from becoming an agreement. It will take a couple of weeks for it to become a done deal, but at least the process is moving."

At the heart of the dispute are two Swiftmud orders issued last year. One limits pumping from West Coast's seven existing well fields to 116-million gallons a day on average over a year, with severe financial penalties for exceeding the limit. Pinellas County has said the restriction would require a building moratorium.

The other order requires Pinellas and St. Petersburg to augment lakes and protect wetlands in Pasco and northwest Hillsborough County that might have been damaged by nearby pumping. Pinellas has argued that if pumping is reduced to a level that wouldn't hurt the lakes, augmentation is a waste of money.

Under the compromise proposal, Pinellas and West Coast would agree to limit demands for water to 116-million gallons per day and drop their lawsuits over the order. Once two more sources of water are added to the West Coast system, providing the capacity to rotate well fields and rest those in danger of depletion, Swiftmud would drop the pumping cap.

And Swiftmud would modify its augmentation order so that improvements to lakes and wetlands would be considered during the review of pumping permits. In return, Pinellas would drop its lawsuits over that matter.

"If we can settle the disagreement between Pinellas and Swiftmud, that is a great step," said Ann Hildebrand, a Pasco commissioner and chairwoman of West Coast's board. "What an agreement would do is save the public's purse."

But Hildebrand predicted the proposal wouldn't sit well with some Pasco residents. Even though last year's pumping limitation dropped the cap to 116-million gallons per day from the permitted levels of 144-million, actual reduction was much less, since the wells were being tapped for only about 120-million.

"Some Pasco residents didn't see that as very meaningful action," she said. "They want to see pumping reduced by another 50 to 75 percent. There's a lot in the compromise that won't sit well with them."

_ You can reach Jean Heller at (813) 893-8785 or send e-mail to: