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Beaches' skepticism no bar to water lines

Whether or not beach cities want it, the Pinellas County Commission is poised to give them reclaimed water _ and charge them for it.

The County Commission will vote today on a plan to extend reclaimed water service to areas without it, starting with Pinellas' beaches. As a result, beach residents with single-family homes would pay $10.40 a month for 20 years, a total of $2,496, to help finance the $52-million project that the county proposes.

It's worth it, county officials say, because beach enclaves are wasting too much drinking water to nourish their lawns. Substituting treated wastewater, known as reclaimed water, could cut the beaches' use of drinking water by 25 percent, officials say.

"This is critically tied to the shortage of water in the area," County Administrator Fred Marquis said.

"If we don't implement a full-fledged reclaimed water program, we're going to have a real water shortage in the future. We're trying to stay years ahead of this problem."

Marquis expects the County Commission to approve the plan.

The county has tried to win the beaches' support, too. For three months, county staffers have answered questions about the proposed reclaimed water system at 14 hearings on the barrier islands. Then county officials asked beach municipalities to formally endorse the project.

The response has been lukewarm. Treasure Island, Indian Shores, Belleair Shore and Clearwater have supported the plan.

But Indian Rocks Beach voted not to support it.

Six other beach towns didn't pass a resolution of any kind. Some city officials complained the county had not provided them with enough information.

"Our elected officials had asked numerous questions about the cost-effectiveness of the system," said Madeira Beach City Manager Kim Leinbach.

"They have not received an adequate response. We don't understand how practical this will be in a beach community that has little available land to irrigate anyway."

If the county approves the idea today, construction could begin in 1{ years. The county wants it to be finished in 2002.

The county also is considering extending reclaimed water lines to North Pinellas suburbs and charging residents there for new systems. The county would try to develop a system of shallow wells for irrigation of large areas like golf courses in North Pinellas, too.

Members of the Citizens Action League in East Lake said Friday that they have numerous questions about the county's plans to "force" north Pinellas residents to pay for reclaimed water service.

Residents who use water from shallow wells to irrigate their land should not have to pay a monthly fee just because they live in a reclaimed water service area, said president Chuck Schult. They don't need to use that water, he said.

The Citizens Action League also questioned why Penny for Pinellas money can't be used for the project. Members said they plan to challenge county commissioners at today's public hearing. "If it's a public hearing, we should get answers. If we don't get answers, there should be no definitive action taken," Schult said. "This has got to be stopped."

At the beaches, the proposed reclaimed water system would form a giant loop from the county's South Cross Bayou Wastewater Treatment Facility at Park Street and 54th Avenue N. The county already manages a reclaimed water line that goes through South Pasadena to St. Pete Beach from the plant.

The county would extend a major reclaimed water pipe from the end of the St. Pete Beach system up Gulf Boulevard to Sand Key, then cut over to the mainland at Walsingham Road and back to the wastewater treatment plant.

The county plans to pay for the $32-million main pipe in the system with a $15.7-million grant from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and money from a bond issue.

Residents would cover the cost of the rest of the project, an estimated $20-million, by paying a monthly "availability charge." The exact fee for the next 20 years will be decided this month, but the county is proposing this fee structure:

Each single-family house and businesses of similar size will pay $10.40 a month for 20 years.

Residents who hook up will pay $2 more a month for reclaimed water. They will also have to pay for the cost of hooking their homes up to the system, a minimum $100 fee.

After 20 years, residents on the system will pay a flat fee of $8 a month for reclaimed water.

Apartments and large businesses will make one payment of $10.40 a month for the whole building, plus 29 cents per 1,000 gallons of reclaimed water.

Jim Nelson, the county's reclaimed water coordinator, realizes that some beach residents criticize the plan. But Nelson predicts even critics will hook up to reclaimed water in the long run.

In St. Pete Beach, for instance, about 58 percent of the residents originally approved a reclaimed water system in 1992. Today about 80 percent of the city is using reclaimed water.

The county has another reason for wanting to pump reclaimed water to the beaches.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered the county's South Cross plant to stop injecting millions of gallons of treated wastewater deep underground to dispose of it. In 1990, the DEP began to suspect that the treated wastewater was bubbling back up and contaminating the county's underground drinking water supplies.

The county later agreed to develop a reclaimed water system to redistribute about 24-million gallons of treated wastewater generated daily by the plant.

The issue of reclaimed water service for the beaches has deeply divided the communities.

In Treasure Island, which endorsed the reclaimed water system last week, the commission overturned a 1992 referendum in which 58 percent of Treasure Island's voting residents turned down reclaimed water.

Other municipal governments such as Redington Beach and Redington Shores have been wary to endorse any proposal that requires residents to pay a fee.

"We've had huge problems suggesting property taxes going up $30 or $20 a year," Redington Beach Mayor Mark Deighton said.

"This is going to be $10 a month. Residents aren't going to like it very much."

Weldon Holmes, a 78-year-old retiree who has lived in Treasure Island for 30 years, is among those who adamantly oppose the reclaimed water system.

Like many beach residents, Holmes has a small rock yard with manicured hedges around it. He doesn't need to water his lawn, so he doesn't want to pay a $10.40-a-month fee for 20 years to bring reclaimed water. "If I'm never going to use it, I shouldn't have to subsidize the users," Holmes said.

Barbara Markley, who owns a triplex in Redington Shores, complains that residents who conserve water are being punished for wasteful residents who spread too much on their lawns.

For instance, the average home in Belleair Shore is using 33,000 gallons of water a month while the average home in Redington Shores is using just 6,000 gallons in the same period, according to county statistics.

"I, personally, don't want to pay for someone else's lush, northern-style yard," Markley said.

On the other side, residents who favor the reclaimed water plan argue it will increase their property values, help beautify the community, and most of all, conserve water.

"We all need to do whatever we can to relieve the water shortage," says Robert Carlson, 60, a commercial real estate broker who lives in Treasure Island. "If we don't do something now, it's going to cost us a lot more in the future when our water supply runs out."

Indian Rocks Mayor Bob DiNicola also supports the reclaimed water system, although the rest of his commission did not, because he wants to be "looking out for the next generation."

DiNicola does object that the County Commission might approve the reclaimed water system without a vote of support from all the beach communities.

Pick Talley, director of Pinellas County Utilities, said that the county cannot wait for some cities to become part of the system of their own choice.