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Agency: Pumping affected well field

(ran PC edition of Pasco Times)

Tampa Bay Water's response to a year-old lawsuit does not accept blame for damage to land or houses.

The agency that supplies much of the Tampa Bay area with its water _ courtesy of central Pasco's well fields _ has admitted that its pumping has changed the water cycle of wetlands around the Cypress Creek well field.

The admission from Tampa Bay Water appears in a response the agency filed last month to a 1998 lawsuit by a Wesley Chapel couple who claim that over-pumping caused trees in their yard to die and has put their home in danger from sinkholes.

The agency stops short of accepting blame for damage to the land or houses, noting only that the agency recognizes that its groundwater pumping has affected wetlands.

It has been a year since Benny and Terri Sims sued Tampa Bay Water, under the agency's former name of West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority. Their lawsuit says years of pumping have so damaged the aquifer that wetlands have dried up and the earth has been left unstable.

After wrangling over legal issues since the lawsuit was filed, Tampa Bay Water submitted its response last month.

The agency says that while pumping has affected wetlands, it was not negligent, nor is there proof that the pumping affected the Simses' home. But, the response adds, even if the agency did cause harm, the pumping was permitted by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, and the Simses should share the blame for building next to an active well field.

In addition, the response says, the needs of 2-million customers should outweigh those of one family, and the agency is immune to such lawsuits anyway.

The Simses' attorney, David Smolker, predicted that the agency's arguments won't hold up in court.

"The general theme of their response is to point fingers at other people," Smolker said Tuesday. "It's a universally accepted fact that they are damaging the area. It's comforting to see that they are admitting that."

Tampa Bay Water attorney Richard Harrison said the agency is only admitting that some wetlands cycles have changed. He said the science of underground water movement is complex.

If there has, in fact, been damage to the Simses' home, there may be other factors, including the quality of fill dirt used to support the house and its construction, Harrison said.

In its response, Tampa Bay Water admits "Tampa Bay Water's withdrawals of water may have contributed to certain reductions . . . in and around the wetlands."

The response also acknowledges "Tampa Bay Water's pumping of groundwater may cause or contribute in varying degrees to a variety of effects in and around the Cypress Creek well field."

While Smolker said he expects resolution within a year, Harrison predicted a lengthy period of discovery _ during which both sides are allowed to dig for evidence and ask questions _ before a trial date could be set.

No matter what the facts are, Harrison said, Tampa Bay Water is protected by laws barring people from suing governmental agencies for the eventual outcomes of planning.

"If Tampa decides at the planning level to put 100 cops on the street, they can't be sued by somebody who says, "You should have put 150 on the street,' " Harrison said.

Pasco County water activist Gilliam Clarke, who lives near the Sims family, said Tampa Bay Water officials still don't seem to comprehend the extent of the damage that pumping has done in and around the well field.

"In a wetland, if you got a dry period, the water would be, oh, 18 inches below the surface," she said. "Now, after all the pumping, it's gone. It's 50 feet below the surface. When it rains, it goes straight down, into the Florida aquifer, trying to replace the water they're sucking out. They still don't want to admit culpability."

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