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For a better environment // The water wars, continued

Predictions are that 1996 will be the year the Florida Legislature resolves Tampa Bay's water wars, the battle of attrition in which the big winners are lawyers and the big loser is regional harmony.

Don't hold your breath.

There are just as many predictions the Legislature will struggle but fail to resolve regional or statewide questions of future drinking water supplies.

If failure waits at the end of the legislative road, it will not be for lack of effort. Already some 40 pieces of water-related legislation have been filed with maybe a dozen more to come. Both Gov. Lawton Chiles and Lt. Gov. Buddy McKay have promised to help modernize the state's water policies. Pressure on the Tallahassee is building. It's hard to believe with so much momentum, something won't happen.

Key lawmakers are guardedly optimistic.

"I think we're not only going to address the Pasco-Pinellas-Hillsborough situation but state water policy as a whole," says Rep. John Rayson, D-Pompano Beach, chairman of the Water Policy Select Committee. "The 1972 legislation we've been living under has done a yeoman's job of serving the water needs of the state for 20 years, but it needs upgrades."

Basically, Rayson says, water-use permitting has been done for too long on a case-by-case basis. A homeowner, a developer, an agribusiness had only to appear before one of the state's five water management districts and request a permit for a new use of ground or surface water. If the request seemed reasonable on its face _ as it virtually always did _ the application was approved. Too seldom was there sufficient consideration of the environmental detriment of putting one last straw in the ground.

What is needed, Rayson adds, is for the water management districts to complete the task of determining minimum healthy flows for rivers and streams and minimum healthy levels for lakes. Only then can it be determined how much water can be taken for consumption without damaging the environment.

"We need to be looking at the hydrology of entire regions, at all water users and their needs, and we have to make permitting subordinate to the sustainability of the resource," Rayson says. "I don't want to be overly optimistic, but I am hopeful we will come up with a single bill that everybody can sign off on."

A proposed rewrite of the statutes that govern the state's five water management districts contains some of what Rayson wants. But it faces stiff opposition from environmental groups that call it a water giveaway, granting many water users rights to take more than the environment can replenish.

The core question is how to set priorities among competing water users. Should a utility be allowed to continue pumping water even if it means the degradation of the environment and dry wells for homeowners near the pumping source?

The old statutes put the priority on the water use that best serves the public interest. The proposed change seems to give the greater weight to applicants seeking renewal of existing water-use permits.

"It would put us in real serious trouble from a long-term perspective," says David Guest of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. "The decision has been made that economic growth is so valuable, they can destroy resources to achieve it."

That question of balance _ between the demands of growth and the stress on the water resources _ has divided the Tampa Bay region off and on for decades. In the last two years, attempts by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, to restrict well field pumping have created yet another round of political and legal battles. If and when accord is reached, history suggests it will be temporary. Water issues are too volatile here to simply go away.

"There's just a tendency in the political arena to argue over water," says Pick Talley, director of utilities for Pinellas County. "Go back to the '70s, and you'll see a lot of today's issues were argued then, litigated then. Ten years from now, when the next set of politicians comes in, they will probably be argued and litigated all over again."

The overriding reason is that none of the interests with a stake in the outcome in this region comes at the problem with exactly the same perspective, so there is no consensus on solutions.

The diverse regional viewpoints of water users and water providers sit _ and clash _ on the board of the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, the area's largest water distributor. The voting members are Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco Counties, and the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa. New Port Richey has a seat but no vote.

St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, with virtually no fresh water supplies beneath them, bought chunks of Pasco and northwest Hillsborough years ago, built well fields and began pumping out water. Today, those fields are managed by West Coast, but most are still owned by individual political jurisdictions.

Because St. Petersburg is mostly built out, its water needs shouldn't increase significantly. With many residents on fixed incomes, city officials don't like the idea of rising water bills caused by development of new water sources that by and large would benefit others. And given the city's excellent conservation record, St. Petersburg isn't warming to cutbacks in pumping from well fields the city owns.

City officials feel ill-treated by Swiftmud.

"Our pumping has never, not once, exceeded the permitted levels imposed by Swiftmud," said Bill Johnson, St. Petersburg's utilities director. "Yet the district spends millions of dollars on an ad campaign saying we've overpumped. It's not true. If they overpermitted, then they should acknowledge that, and then maybe we could work together to fix it."

Pinellas County still has some room to grow, but not much, so water needs aren't expected to grow much, either. Pinellas is also reluctant to help develop new, more expensive water resources when officials believe there is still plenty of ground water to meet the region's future needs.

Pinellas officials also object to adding water from the Hillsborough River to their county's water supply. Citing occasional outbreaks of disease caused by waterborne parasites, they say the risk is unacceptable for older citizens. They also object to plans to mix highly treated waste water with water from the river, which then would be purified for drinking.

Pinellas County Commissioner Charles Rainey has said repeatedly, "Pinellas won't drink sewer water."

On the river water issue, Pinellas stands alone. Tampa consumes river water exclusively without ill effect. Even St. Petersburg isn't concerned about it.

"The technology is there to make it perfectly safe," said Johnson. "I wouldn't worry about it."

Pasco County, for years the region's drinking fountain, now finds lakes and wetlands dried up by a combination of drought and pumping. The damage has galvanized residents to demand change. But they were helpless to take unilateral action to modify pumping at well fields they didn't own.

Swiftmud sided with Pasco in 1994, slapping emergency pumping restrictions on West Coast and now keying pumping volumes to environmental conditions. And the agency is pressing for relatively expensive desalination as the only drought-proof source of new drinking water. Swiftmud's new activism has created a blizzard of legal action from St. Petersburg, Pinellas and West Coast.

Tampa, meanwhile, takes its water from the Hillsborough River, and has no shortage. The river water has never made anyone sick that authorities know of, so they find it difficult to understand the intractability of Pinellas when it comes to drinking water from surface sources.

Hillsborough County, with plenty of room to grow, will need new water sources in the future. But suddenly, everybody is looking to Hillsborough for new water, and county officials, at first eager to help resolve a serious regional problem, now harbor fears that excessive ground water withdrawals could turn Hillsborough into the next Pasco.

A contributing factor to the water woes is that West Coast is a cooperative, not a true authority. Any single member can vote against a project, and it will die unless other members want to defray the difference. The member most often voting no is Pinellas. Since Pinellas uses 57 percent of West Coast's water and pays 57 percent of the bills, its share is too large for other jurisdictions to pick up.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, initially proposed legislative action to turn West Coast into a true authority where a simple majority ruled. Latvala also wanted to see West Coast buy up well fields still owned by individual jurisdictions and to own and manage all future water resources.

"There were some constitutional issues that surfaced with that, so we modified the proposal a bit," Latvala said. "Our new proposal would give West Coast the power and incentives to make itself stronger, to become a true authority, if the five voting members agree to it. And future resources would be bonded by the authority, owned by the authority and paid for according to who drinks the water."

Does such a plan have a chance for passage?

"A 50-50 shot," Latvala said. "Something has to give here. It's gotten to the point that the lawyers have gained the influence. That's a new dynamic and not a good one. At some point, the taxpayers have to decide they're tired to paying lawyers and let their elected officials know they want this resolved."

So how did we get to this point? Was there something someone should have recognized years ago that might have saved Tampa Bay this grief?

It's tempting to point to areas of high growth, like Pinellas County, and accuse planners of calculated abuse of water resources. Growth managers worried far more about building infrastructure to carry water to new development than about the scientific validity of the amount of water they planned to use.

But with the exception of a few persistent complaints from Pasco County, there was little warning that the water resource was in danger. The simple fact is that when an individual or corporation appeared before Swiftmud with an application to tap Tampa Bay's aquifer, approval was automatic. There was no hint of a warning from the agency charged with protecting the water resource.

"That's true," said Joe Davis Jr., chairman of the Swiftmud board. "There weren't as many questions asked or issues raised as there should have been. But when you dig a ditch to drain an area, it can be years until cypress heads start drying up. It can be 10 years until you see the adverse impacts of pumping.

"You have to remember that the water management districts were created as flood-control agencies. Our initial problem was too much water. It wasn't until 1972 legislation that we got a dual mandate to reconcile all reasonable beneficial needs for water with sustaining the resource."

Ann Hildebrand, a Pasco County commissioner and former chairman of the West Coast board, recalled that even in her county very few people worried about protecting water resources in the '70s.

"Pasco was water-rich; Pinellas was water-poor and growing fast, so this was a logical place for Pinellas to come for water," Hildebrand recalled. "A few people rose up to complain, but the squabbles quieted down because it was so wet here.

"Back then, anything was fair game. Developers bought up orange groves to build houses. They could drain or fill in wetlands to build houses. And they did. All they needed were electrical and plumbing permits. We didn't even have zoning until 1975. Today we have developments prone to flooding because they were built in what used to be swamps. You can't do that today, but you also can't bring back what we lost. What we have to do now is protect what we have left."