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Historic regional water agreement is sealed

On a rainy morning in March 1996, Analee Moore found herself in a meeting room with assorted mayors, county commissioners and lawyers who didn't know how to talk to one another, let alone agree on anything.

"There wasn't much trust," Moore, a professional facilitator, recalled of that day with board members of the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority and their staffs. "They were so far away from one another, at the end of every meeting it was questionable whether they would even agree to meet again."

Now, after two years and 31 board meetings _ a few running to 15 hours _ and countless discussions and government workshops, what seemed impossible that March morning is reality.

Six governments and two agencies, some of whom have been fighting, accusing, vilifying and suing one another since Calvin Coolidge was president, have a peace agreement that should end the often arcane and always expensive regional war over water.

The Tampa City Council and the Pasco County Commission on Thursday became the final governments to approve the historic water agreement. The state Legislature passed it as well.

"In this decade, there is no bigger vote than what we just did," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who helped negotiate the agreement as chairman of West Coast's board. "I think it's probably the most important environmental vote we've taken in 20 years."

The plan, which transforms West Coast into a regional utility that would seek new water sources, now goes to Gov. Lawton Chiles, who is expected to sign it.

"I got a very nice personal note from him saying congratulations," Turanchik said.

The deal is done.

Now what?

New water supplies won't appear by magic, and there are a number of steps before water officials make the first decisions on which projects to pursue.

There are, of course, piles of legal paperwork attached to the agreement, transfers of assets and well field permits among them, to be completed.

In addition, the next two months will see officials of the Southwest Florida Water Management District asking its six basin boards, the panels that oversee individual river basins, to commit $9-million a year for 10 years to fund water conservation projects in the Tampa Bay area.

That $90-million is in addition to the $183-million Swiftmud has pledged to defray the cost of building new water resources.

Meanwhile, West Coast must develop a specific water development plan by July 1, even as the agency holds simultaneous negotiations with as many as four corporate partnerships that want to build a salt water desalination plant.

"This is not just paper pushing," said Jerry Maxwell, general manager of West Coast. "This is intense, critical work."

The three counties party to the water agreement, Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough, each get a second seat on the enlarged utility board and must decide in the next two months who will occupy those seats. St. Petersburg and Tampa retain one member each, as does New Port Richey, although for the first time, its delegate will have a vote.

Early in July, the parties will hold a signing ceremony, formally opening the new water era. At that point, West Coast will cease to exist, and the new utility, called Tampa Bay Water, will replace it.

In August and September, well fields, pumping stations, pipelines and other water-production property now owned by West Coast and the six governments will be transferred to Tampa Bay Water. By the utility's September meeting, decisions on new water projects should be complete.

By Oct. 1, Swiftmud will have created a trust fund for the first $100-million of its matching funds.

The goal is to reduce pumping from stressed well fields from 158-million gallons a day to 90-million gallons a day by the year 2007, while creating 85-million gallons a day in new water resources.

In addition to environmental damage, another problem goes away: The endless lawsuits that made it impossible for the member governments or the water agencies to make much progress on anything.

Which is not to say the sailing will be smooth.

Any member government that objects to a new water project within its borders has 30 days to send the decision to arbitration. But that is less of an immediate prospect than lawsuits from third parties.

The city of Tarpon Springs already has put West Coast on notice it will use every legal means to prevent a desalination plant from being built nearby. Environmental groups might also challenge that project and others. Nothing bars them from the courtroom except, perhaps, the cost.

"Theoretically, if all the member governments and the district are on the same page about a project, that would be a formidable legal juggernaut (for a third party) to overcome," said Sonny Vergera, executive director of Swiftmud.

Maxwell agrees.

"That's a powerful coalition of government entities for anybody to take on," he said.

In the euphoria that surrounds successful completion of these negotiations, it would be wrong to think it was only good will that forged this regional alliance. Threats helped, too.

Had West Coast and its member governments not approved the agreement, one lawsuit over four well field permits would have started again immediately, with two additional suits soon to follow. The Swiftmud money for new projects would have evaporated and, worst of all, the region's water future would have been left to the Florida Legislature.

That's what prompted a reluctant Tampa City Council to okay the deal. Tampa leaders feared if they didn't agree, the Legislature might force an arrangement where they would lose control of the Hillsborough River, the city's primary source of water, and face unreasonably high water prices in the dry season.

_ Times staff writer Jeffrey Gettleman contributed to this report.