The region's largest water utility used a Chicken Little offense Monday to kick off a hearing designed to determine once and for all whether pumping water from under the ground causes unacceptable environmental consequences.
Jerry Maxwell, general manager of the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, testified that a decision by the region's water regulator to deny four pumping permit renewal applications means a probable shutdown of the well fields. That, in turn, would mean inevitable catastrophe for St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, Maxwell added.
Maxwell's assessment was immediately denied by the regulator, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud.
The four well fields in question _ Northwest Hillsborough, Section 21, Cosme-Odessa and South Pasco _ provide more than 20 percent of the water used daily in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
"The authority will not be able to generate emergency supplies if the permits are denied," Maxwell told a hearing examiner. "We will be unable to supply health services and hospitals. Firefighting capacity will be diminished."
Maxwell said in the absence of assurances from Swiftmud that the four well fields would be allowed to continue to operate, he assumes they would not.
However, Swiftmud officials have said repeatedly in the past and again on Monday that they have no intention, and no authority under state statute, to take any action that would cut off water needed for public consumption and safety.
"What a crock," Swiftmud spokeswoman Honey Rand said later. "It's just like the old threat that water restrictions would force a building moratorium. It didn't happen; it won't happen. We're back to the scare tactics."
Rick Tschantz, an attorney for Swiftmud, agreed.
"This is just the picture they think they have to paint," Tschantz said outside the hearing. "All of the well fields will continue operating under the terms of the old permits for the duration of this hearing and through the entire appeals process, and that could be a long, long time."
The hearing is scheduled to last four weeks. Some time after it ends, and probably not until next year, the examiner will make his recommendation to the Swiftmud board.
That recommendation will be his judgment about whether pumping has caused environmental damage, how much, if any, damage is acceptable and where unacceptable damage has occurred, what should be done about it.
Swiftmud will act on the recommendation, and the complaining parties, St. Petersburg, Pinellas County and West Coast, could then appeal that decision either to the 2nd District Court of Appeal or to the governor and Cabinet, sitting as the Florida Water Adjudicatory Commission.
The appeals process could last 18 months to two years or more, Rand said.