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Tampa unhappily signs on to water pact

City leaders on Thursday reluctantly accepted the six-government water agreement not so much for what they will get out of the deal, but for what they won't lose.

Tampa politicians were afraid that if they didn't sign, the state Legislature might force them into an arrangement where they would surrender control of the Hillsborough River, the city's primary water source, and face unreasonably high water prices in the dry season.

"The folks in Tallahassee would have made us join the region even if we didn't want to," Mayor Dick Greco said Thursday after the City Council voted 6-1 to approve the deal. "And though this agreement might not be perfect, it protects the city's interests as best as we could."

Council members were concerned about two aspects of the new West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority: First, the city has only one vote on the nine-member board, even though Tampa supplies more than a fifth of the region's water; And second, the city could soon outgrow its daily limit of 82 million gallons of river water and be required to buy more expensive water from the authority. At an average of about $10, Tampa residents have the lowest monthly water bills in the area, and council members vowed to keep it that way.

Under the plan, Tampa will sell its rights to the water from the city-run Morris Bridge well field in north Tampa for $31-million. The city will save that money to help offset any future rate increases, said city water director David Tippin.

Tampa sucks down 70-million gallons of water a day, with 97 percent from the Hillsborough River. Except during May and June and a few weeks in February, the city relies exclusively on the river.

What will change under the agreement is during the dry season, instead of pumping water from the well field, the city will have to buy water from West Coast at a rate set by the authority's board. While this is bound to cost a little more than Tampa customers now pay, at least the city has assurance it will get water at a rate it helps control, Tippin said.

Rudy Fernandez, the council member who voted against the agreement, cringed at the thought that Tampa has the same clout on the authority's board as New Port Richey, which has a population 15 times smaller.

"This is ludicrous," Fernandez said. "We should have walked away from this deal and stayed away until we got a weighted vote."

But minutes after Fernandez's colleagues passed the historic agreement on Thursday morning, the Pasco County Commission unanimously approved its participation, locking in the conditions of the contract between the county governments of Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough and the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey.

Later in the day, legislators in Tallahassee approved a related bill, and now the agreement awaits the governor's approval, which is expected. The agreement is scheduled to go into effect by October.