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The water winners

It has taken more than a year and the persistent prodding of a local legislator, but a truce appears to be close in Tampa Bay's latest water war. Everyone but the lawyers will win if a compromise actually is reached.

Credit state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, who already has accomplished what no other elected official could do _ get the two sides to talk to each other without the lawyers getting in the way.

Taxpayers owe him thanks for that. Getting the agency heads to talk to each other without the legal meter running was "one of the secrets of our success," Latvala said Tuesday.

Success is not quite at hand, however, and it is critical that all the parties continue to press ahead and reach a compromise. It is a complex matter involving four different governments with different agendas and egos that must be soothed.

Pinellas County, which has led the fight, was set to spend millions of dollars in legal fees to battle an order by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud) that decreased the amount of water that can be pumped from already stressed well fields.

That emergency order, one year old on Friday, was issued after Pinellas and St. Petersburg rebuffed Swiftmud's attempt at voluntary compliance. Swiftmud finally had acknowledged what it had long denied _ that levels of certain lakes had dropped because of pumping at nearby well fields. Reducing the pumping would stop the environmental damage, the agency said.

But Pinellas, which depends on the well fields, insisted that years of drought had done more to the lake levels than overpumping and county officials were prepared to spend whatever it took to prove it.

Pinellas officials kept insisting that a building moratorium would be necessary if the emergency order stayed in place. The county couldn't possibly meet the cap, they said. Such fear-mongering stirred headlines and raised fears. But one year later, no moratorium has been declared, and the county has managed to stay within the cap imposed by Swiftmud without having to impose any serious new conservation measures.

Latvala said he used a proposed solution offered months ago by the Hillsborough County Commission as the starting point for talks.

The compromise now on the table uses semantics to get around the perceived need for a moratorium. It also would lift the cap once new water sources are on line, which could happen within a year, and calls for increased conservation and education measures. It also commits to increasing Pasco lake levels by pumping groundwater.

The most important aspect of this compromise is that it unites these government agencies and allows them to start using their time and resources in more productive ways than fighting with each other.

The entire region _ Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg _ must work together to ensure a safe, economical and environmentally sustainable source of drinking water in a centralized system.

Latvala's senate district is half in Pasco, half in Pinellas. That helped him to rise above the parochial concerns of either county and work toward a solution that benefits everyone. That's a lesson in regional cooperation everyone can emulate.