For years, Pasco County officials could do nothing as wetlands withered, lakes drained and neighboring governments kept pumping the groundwater that flows beneath the county
Now, Pasco may be on the verge of winning some local control.
In a move that some say challenges the notion that water is a statewide resource, Pasco is lining up its forces to defend a provision in the county's comprehensive plan that would give commissioners here a veto over new well fields.
"For years, everyone has run this county but us," County Administrator John Gallagher said. "From now on, I want to make sure that we're the area of last resort."
Pasco's provision creates a special land-use category for public water supply. After receiving permission from the state water regulators to locate a well field in Pasco, applicants would then have to get the county's blessing by proving that the well field would not undermine planned economic or residential growth in the area.
H. Clyde Hobby, Pasco's water lobbyist, said there is nothing unusual about Pasco's plan.
"Local governments have always had the right to do this," he said.
But Pinellas County, which gets most of its water from Pasco, has already filed a challenge with the state Department of Community Affairs. DCA must approve Pasco's comprehensive plan.
"This goes beyond a land-use tool," Pinellas County Commissioner Steve Seibert said. "Carried to its logical extreme, it could place into any local government's hands the ability to preclude regional efforts to develop new water sources."
Peter Dunbar, an attorney hired to mediate talks to end the region's water wars, agreed that the provision was at least a partial reversal of state water policy. He's meeting with Gallagher today to try to find an alternative.
"This would be a major change," he said. "It's a long path and, given the opposition out there, it will be hard fought."
Gallagher didn't disagree. But he said it may not come to that.
As area politicians inch toward an agreement to reorganize the region's largest water supplier, the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, into a true utility, Pasco's willingness to fight for the provision _ and the perception that the county has a chance of winning _ may force its neighbors into offering some concessions.
"It's the general perception of everyone involved that the governor's office has intervened with DCA on Pasco's behalf," Dunbar said. "Pasco certainly has everyone's attention."
A spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Buddy McKay, whom Pasco considers an ally, said the governor's office has had no recent contact with the agency. Gallagher and Hobby concurred.
Whatever the reason, Dunbar said, Pasco's headway with the agency should not distract the county from the real goal: peace in the long-running regional water war. Even if Pasco's comprehensive plan was approved, Dunbar said, the matter would likely be tied up in litigation for years.
"Pasco gets no new water that way _ either for themselves or to rest well fields currently causing problems," he said.
Under the proposed peace agreement, West Coast's member governments _ Pasco, Pinellas, New Port Richey, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Hillsborough _ would give up control of well fields they own in Pasco and elsewhere. Instead, the well fields would be owned by West Coast, which could better manage demand and pumping by assessing needs regionally.
The agreement would also make available millions of gallons of new water a day, which could be used to rest Pasco well fields. There are no current plans to take the new water from Pasco, but officials here want a guarantee before they are willing to give up on the comprehensive plan provision.
"No one is willing to say that," said Pasco water lawyer Fred Reeves. "If they were, I think this whole issue would go away."
That's what Dunbar is going to talk to Gallagher about today.
"Pasco wants us to embrace the "last resort' concept," said Dunbar. "They want it in black and white. I don't think that's unreasonable."