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Pasco seals landmark water deal

Ed Collins compared the regional water accord he and fellow commissioners ratified Thursday to the peace agreement in Northern Ireland.

After hearing former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell discussing the longstanding trouble in Ireland, Collins immediately thought of the water wars in Tampa Bay.

"I expected to hear him say, "If West Coast can get a deal done, anything's possible,' " Collins said, referring to the deal that reorganizes the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority.

Collins, the Pasco County Commission's point man in negotiating the six-government pact, described years of disputes so frustrating that at times commissioners almost wanted to blow up pipelines carrying water from Pasco to its southern neighbors.

But Thursday, Pasco commissioners, Tampa city officials and state legislators moved closer to burying those frustrations when all three groups approved the landmark water agreement within hours of one another.

Pasco and Tampa were the last two government bodies to ratify the deal, which reorganizes West Coast and revamps the way the region distributes its water.

The compromise among the six member governments requires them to sell their individual well fields to the new utility and sets up a new method of dispute resolution that relies on binding arbitration rather than court battles.

Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and the cities of St. Petersburg and New Port Richey gave the pact their seal of approval in April.

The agreement, designed to cut down on legal challenges and pave the way for developing new water sources for the region, is being hailed as an end to the region's water wars.

"While no member government has everything they wanted, I do believe all member governments received what they needed," said George Nickerson, an engineer who summarized the plan for commissioners and the public Thursday.

For Pasco, the plan's benefits include a reduction in groundwater pumping, which has been blamed for drying out numerous Pasco lakes and wetlands. Also, Pasco will have greater say in where the new utility will get water as the region grows.

The agreement also guarantees each government will pay the same water rates.

Despite those strides, activists warned commissioners that the accord was less than perfect.

Longtime activist Silbourne Clarke urged the member governments to establish a charter for the new utility and set up regular audits to make sure governments comply with the pact.

Clarke and his wife, Gilliam, said the agreement commits Pasco to move forward quickly with desalination efforts in order to keep pumping at a minimum. Without new water from desalination, they said, the whole agreement is moot.

Overall, the Clarkes and others in attendance agreed with commissioners that the deal was the best Pasco could do.

"God bless everyone who worked on this deal," Gilliam Clarke said. "You done a good job."