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Vote sets stage for new water era

Acting earlier than anticipated, the Florida Legislature approved a measure Wednesday allowing the historic reorganization of the way the business of water is conducted in the Tampa Bay region.

The action set the stage for the final two local votes on the region's water deal today from the Tampa City Council and Pasco County Commission. Both are expected to approve, joining Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and the cities of St. Petersburg and New Port Richey, where the deal passed in votes during the past week.

The votes open the door on a new water era in Tampa Bay, with less dependence on ground water; an end to litigation among neighboring governments; and water supplies plentiful enough to support residential, tourist and industrial growth into the foreseeable future.

The Senate approved the enabling legislation without debate Wednesday. The House already had approved it, but a minor Senate amendment dealing with water issues in Miami requires that the House approve the bill again. That action should come today.

Once the House acts, the bill will go to Gov. Lawton Chiles, who is expected to sign it. The Department of Environmental Protection also must approve, although the pivotal votes are the action by the Legislature and the six local governments.

"Well, that's good. That's excellent," Sonny Vergera, executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, said when told of the legislative action. "That's one more piece of a very complex puzzle."

Vergera's relief was echoed at the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority.

"We're very encouraged by the legislative action," said general counsel Don Conn. "This is of great assistance to us. The Legislature is doing its part, and we're doing our part on the local level. Looks good."

The Legislature's action Wednesday came as something of a surprise. A vote wasn't scheduled until after all six local governments acted. But apparently the need to return the bill to the House briefly, and the looming legislative adjournment Friday, prompted the expedited action.

If all goes as planned, West Coast will cease to exist July 1, replaced by a utility called Tampa Bay Water.

The new organization will enter a partnership with Swiftmud, which has pledged as much as $183-million to help develop new water sources for the region, possibly including seawater desalination and construction of a large reservoir.

The goal is to cut ground water pumping from 158-million gallons a day to 90-million gallons a day by the end of 2007, and to provide at least 85-million gallons a day of new water in the same time period.

The six member governments of West Coast will sell virtually all of their water production facilities to Tampa Bay Water and will allow the utility to act on their behalf in permit negotiations with Swiftmud, ending years of divisive and expensive litigation.

_ Times staff writer Julie Hauserman contributed to this report.

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