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Deal to safeguard water sources

The cooperative agreement signed Thursday among Tampa Bay water users should translate into long-term aquifer protection for Citrus County, local officials said.

The West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority reorganized itself into a utility after the governing bodies of Tampa and Pasco County agreed to join the other participants.

Coupled with the recent passage of so-called "local sources first" legislation, Tampa Bay area users will have to exhaust their area's water supply sources before seeking water from outlying areas such as Citrus County.

The state House of Representatives, by a 115-0 vote, approved the measure allowing the reorganization to go forward, said Frank Peterson, assistant to Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, sponsor of the legislation.

"The thing that is of interest to Citrus County is they (Tampa Bay users) will have no interest to go out of their area to pump water," said Mike Molligan, spokesman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly called Swiftmud.

"It's a great thing," Commissioner Jim Fowler said, "and hopefully it will end the threat of water wars as we know them."

In the coming months, the new utility is expected to implement partnerships between its members _ Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, along with St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey _ that will decrease groundwater pumping from 158-million gallons per day to 90-million gallons per day by the end of 2007.

Those partnerships, which St. Petersburg, Tampa, New Port Richey and Pasco County are expected to approve in the next two weeks, also will seek to create another 85-million gallons per day in new water sources, largely through conservation, by 2007.

The utility will work closely with Swiftmud, which is contributing $183-million to develop non-traditional water sources, such as desalination. The district also will continue to provide another $9-million annually toward conservation efforts, Molligan said.

Citrus' water supply had never been tapped by neighboring counties, which fought for years over pumping rights and the environmental effects of drawing too much groundwater for a growing urban population.

"Groundwater pumping was drawing down the level of water in lakes and wetlands," Molligan said.

For the foreseeable future, Citrus County will be the only entity drawing upon its own resources.

"To date, Citrus County's aquifer system has not been stressed heavily like some areas have been," said John Parker, a water use regulation manager for Swiftmud who will be reviewing many of the utility's water supply projects.

"Growth is continuing so there will be demand on the water system, but it's not happening yet. You just don't have 20 to 30 (millions of gallons per day) wellfields there, which in Central Pasco you do. "

While local sources first "is not a complete prohibition," on seeking neighboring sources of water, Peterson said, local governing boards must concentrate on their own resources first.

The utility plans clearly focus on the Tampa Bay area, West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority spokeswoman Michelle Klase said after the vote.

"I've heard fears about us going outside our service area," she said. "All those projects are within our current service area."