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Swiftmud okays 5 new water wells in Spring Hill

Over the years, Barbara Down has watched Balsam Lake in Spring Hill shrink.

The endangered wood stork no longer visits the lakeside where Down's house sits, south of Spring Hill and Waterfall drives. She sold a johnboat because she had to drag it too far to reach the shore, Down explained Tuesday to the governing board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which is commonly known as Swiftmud.

Approving the construction of additional water wells in Spring Hill only will "add to the problem" of dry lakes and wetlands in west Hernando County, she insisted.

"I'm starting to feel like an endangered species. My property values are going down," Down told the board. "My habitat is being destroyed."

Despite Down's pleas, and those of several others, Swiftmud board members granted a permit that allows Southern States Utilities to construct five water wells and to pump at least an additional 3.1-million gallons of water daily from underneath Hernando.

James E. Martin was the only Swiftmud board member who voted against issuing Southern States the permit, which is based on population demands in Spring Hill. Martin told the board the Southern States project passes Swiftmud's criteria, but that does not mean the permit should be granted.

"Although this project is permissible, it seems to me the pumping is inappropriate for the conditions," Martin said. "There are people who have sold their johnboats because they couldn't drag them to the nearest puddle."

The board approved Southern States' application after nearly two hours of debate, several motions _ including one to deny Southern States' request _ and a new condition, which undoubtedly will spur a legal fight if challenged.

The condition, which was added to the permit during Tuesday's meeting, says that if Swiftmud determines that unacceptable results are caused by the additional pumping, Southern States' permit can be modified. The condition also refers to a study, which Swiftmud is conducting.

The study, known as the Water Resources Assessment Project, is an analysis of Hernando County's water supply, which, among other things, will determine how much water can be removed from the aquifer without damaging the environment. The study should be finished in December 1996.

"Should this study determine that adverse impacts exist in this area and that this permit contributes to these impacts, the board may modify or revoke this permit," the condition states.

Southern States attorney Carlyn H. Kowalsky said after the meeting that she did know whether the utility would accept the condition. The company has 17 days to object.

Southern States says it needs more water and more wells to meet the projected customer demand in Spring Hill, the county's fastest growing community. By 2001, Southern States estimates the population will be nearly 94,000, up from the current 60,000.

Under the approved permit, Southern States' annual average use of its existing 19 wells will be increased from 10.3-million gallons daily to 13.4-million gallons daily. The utility's maximum average pumping for the month is not supposed to exceed 20.5-million gallons.

The five new wells, which also were approved Tuesday, will be built near Mariner Boulevard and Killian Street; in the area of Lake Meredith, south of Spring Hill Drive, where two wells will be built; Deer Street and West Linden Drive in central Spring Hill; and near Keysville and Cartee avenues in north-central Spring Hill.

Swiftmud board Vice Chairman Roy G. Harrell Jr. wanted to know what impact the increased pumping and additional wells will have on Spring Hill's lakes, wetlands and private drinking wells.

John Parker, Swiftmud's water-use permitting supervisor, said that the cumulative drawdown of lakes and wetlands in the vicinity of Southern States' wells would be less than one foot.

Swiftmud officials said the Southern States' wells will have an impact on the environment, but the effects are at acceptable levels.

Still, Harrell appeared concerned, despite his vote to approve the permit.

"We say one foot, but if you're talking about a foot in a lake that's already stressed, that's another issue," Harrell told the board.

After the board approved Southern States' request, Kowalsky said that if there are impacts, the utility will "adjust operations."

"Our job is to provide a safe and reliable water supply, and we're not going to take any action that will jeopardize the reliability of our water supply," Kowalsky told the board.

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