1. Archive

Lack of experience chills water board work

The faces are changing on the board that makes the region's drinking water policies, and new members are struggling to get their minds around momentous issues and dramatic decisions.

The pending departure of Pinellas County Commissioner Steve Seibert for a state job in Tallahassee means only three of the nine members of the Tampa Bay Water board have previous experience making water policy.

Only two remain from the tightly knit team that agonized through thousands of hours during two years to create the new utility, which was supposed to bring water peace to the Pinellas-Pasco-Hillsborough region.

The loss of so much of its institutional memory has left Tampa Bay Water spinning its wheels, delaying _ and some say endangering _ new water projects developed to wean the region from its decades-long dependence on groundwater.

To some extent, the parochialism and suspicion endemic to the past have returned.

"We spent years trying to find a solution to shortages and environmental damage, and we got it signed off on by every member government and the Legislature and the Department of Environmental Protection," said TBW general manager Jerry Maxwell. "Now that we're in a position to implement it, we're faced with allegations and delays."

"They're talking about starting all over again," said the utility's general counsel Don Conn.

Much of the cause for their alarm centers in Hillsborough County, which put two new members on the water board who also are new county commissioners. Pat Frank and Ronda Storms, therefore, face the daunting task of assimilating not only the local issues of their county but also the regional issues involving water policy.

Both have expressed concerns about so many new water projects being located among their constituents, including well fields in Brandon and in northeast Hillsborough, a reservoir, and the diversion of water from two major rivers to keep it filled. They question whether it is appropriate for Hillsborough to share its resources with its neighbors.

Frank took it so far as to suggest at the commission's Dec. 2 meeting that the regional agreement at the heart of the tri-county's new water era be reviewed to see if it is the best thing for Hillsborough.

At a Tampa Bay Water meeting Dec. 21, Frank and Storms led an effort that eventually put off for another two months a decision on who will build a seawater desalination plant for the region. Most of their colleagues agreed the delay was necessary to allow adequate review of the contract language and final bids.

"I feel in an abundance of caution (that we should) slow it down," Storms said. "Not stop it, but slow it down."

Hillsborough also stands ready to send every new water project planned for the county to arbitration, a process that would build in more delays while questions about a project's environmental impacts and scope are reviewed again.

"I think one of the problems is the people who are now engaged on water issues don't have any history and no concept of the size of the problem we were trying to solve," said Ed Turanchik, the former Hillsborough commissioner who chaired Tampa Bay Water's predecessor, the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, during its historic restructuring.

"The plans to draw excess water from the Alafia and Hillsborough rivers and the Tampa Bypass Canal are all very good projects," Turanchik said. "I haven't seen a single reputable environmental study that sends up any warning flags at all. What you have out there is a lot of NIMBY-ism, and it is pretty short-sighted."

But Turanchik stopped short of criticizing the two-month delay in choosing a desalination contractor.

"Making sure you pick the right desal vendor is very important," he said.

There are other points of pressure. At least two members of the five-member Pasco County Commission say if TBW chooses an Anclote River site in Pasco for its desalination plant, they will vote to take that project to arbitration. If the move succeeds, it would put Pasco in the ironic position of delaying a project designed to take the pressure off the county's severely stressed well fields.

The idea of arbitration has been endorsed by Pasco Commissioner Sylvia Young, one of the new board members of Tampa Bay Water.

"I certainly hope it doesn't happen because we can't afford to tarry," said Ann Hildebrand, the other Pasco commissioner with a seat on the TBW board. "I kind of get the sense that most people want to wrap around that thought."

But, Hildebrand acknowledges, new faces on the board are slowing down the process of getting new water projects moving.

"If Ed Turanchik still represented Hillsborough, you wouldn't be hearing these questions," she said. Turanchik resigned his commission seat last month to head the local Olympic effort.

Hildebrand has several years of previous service on the water board. She was succeeded by Ed Collins and returned when Collins lost his bid for re-election to the commission. The only others who can lend continuity are St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer and New Port Richey City Council member Frank Parker. Both are holdovers from the old West Coast.

To address the new members' questions, Tampa Bay Water plans a daylong meeting on Friday on desalination.

Exacerbating events that are slowing new water projects is a controversy over whether a water consultant that is advising TBW might have developed a conflict of interest when it signed on to consult on a desal project in Trinidad. The Trinidad project eventually involved a membrane manufacturer called Ionics. Ionics also is a member of the Progress Energy partnership, which is trying to get the desal project here.

The consultant, PB Water of Orlando, withdrew from the Trinidad project shortly after learning of Ionics' involvement there.

TBW general counsel Don Conn studied the situation and found no conflict.

Then a lawyer who represents Enpower, one of the development partners in the Florida Seawater Desalination team competing with Progress Energy/Ionics, wrote to Conn and cited what Enpower characterized as 19 irregularities in the bidding process. The irregularities were allowed by PB Water and benefited Ionics, Enpower charged.

Conn got a second review from TBW's outside counsel, who found the charges groundless.

That dustup could delay a decision on a desalination contractor if Hillsborough Commissioner Jim Norman goes through with his plan to request an investigation by the state Commission on Ethics.

Maxwell gives the allegations little credibility.