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Pinellas joins truce in water war

(ran SS edition of Metro & State)

County commissioners pulled out all their superlatives and historical analogies Tuesday as they unanimously voted to end the water wars they have waged for years against their fellow Tampa Bay area governments.

As part of the historic deal, Pinellas County will hand over control of its drinking water supply to a revamped regional water board. This from a commission that has spent decades and millions of dollars in court fighting to protect its water rights.

One county commissioner called it one of the most important votes the commission has ever taken. Another likened the spirit of regional cooperation to the Three Musketeers: one for all and all for one.

Between hugs and backslaps, Commissioner Steve Seibert, who with County Administrator Fred Marquis helped negotiate the deal, said the moment for him bordered on euphoria.

"If we can solve water, there is nothing this region can't solve," Seibert said.

By signing the agreement, the county is promising to settle any future disputes through mediation. The partnership, which has been approved by officials in New Port Richey, St. Petersburg and Hillsborough County, will control water rates and supply in three counties.

Tampa and Pasco County are scheduled to vote on the deal Thursday. A no vote by either government will likely kill the deal. The state Legislature also has to approve.

The pact was two years in the making and several times teetered on collapse. But in the end, pressure from the Legislature helped the sides compromise on several issues that had once been untenable.

The agreement would reorganize the West Coast Water Supply Authority and give it control of most of the Tampa Bay area's water supply. Local governments will hand over ownership of water-related assets such as well fields and pipelines. The new authority would set rates and, with help from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, develop new water sources for the region, such as a desalination plant or freshwater reservoir.

What the six local governments get is a deal that makes no one entirely happy but is what Pinellas County commissioners called the best and only alternative. Not joining the regional water board would have meant drastic cutbacks in how much water Pinellas County could pump from its well fields.

Still, there are many questions unanswered. No one is certain how the deal, which pools the region's wells and future water sources under one authority, will affect consumer rates. Estimates range from not very much to double the current monthly bill.

The county also will likely begin the new era of cooperation by taking two issues to arbitration. One has to deal with the quality of water provided by a planned desalination plant. While the desalinated water would meet federal regulations, county officials are concerned they might have to spend up to $100-million to make the water meet their stricter odor and taste standards.

Commissioner Sallie Parks said the agreement is not one that was easy to embrace.

"Like many of you, I put together a pro-and-con list. And the con list was very long," Parks said. "Still, the pro list was longer."

The deal still hinges on Thursday's votes in Pasco and Tampa, along with the state Senate approval of a bill that would create the regional water board, which will replace the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority and be known as Tampa Bay Water.

County Commission Chairwoman Barbara Sheen Todd has been a hesitant supporter of the deal but says the Legislature gave the county no choice. The Legislature is considering a bill that would make counties rely on local water sources first, which for Pinellas County would have been nearly impossible. The county pumps the majority of its drinking water from Pasco.

However, that same bill exempts South Florida and Orlando. The bill now has been amended to exempt Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco.

After the meeting, as he accepted congratulatory calls from his wife and parents, Seibert said that oftentimes during the negotiations, he thought about the Founding Fathers and their drafting of the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution.

And though he is known for his penchant of quoting Abraham Lincoln, this time, Seibert turned to another historic figure in describing what motivated him through the hundreds of hours of negotiations: "As Benjamin Franklin said "We must all hang together, or assuredly, we shall all hang separately.' "