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Wet noodles won't do

Water regulators, finally considering some painful but necessary conservation measures, should ignore the bleating of shortsighted local officials.

With Tampa Bay Water in violation of its pumping permit in the midst of a drought, the Southwest Florida Water Management District is thinking about getting tough. Better late than never.

The Swiftmud staff could have proposed stiff fines for Tampa Bay Water, the tri-county utility, for exceeding its 158-million-gallon-per-day limit, but that wouldn't necessarily slow consumption. Instead, the staff wants to provide enough water but give the utility's member governments 30 days to take strict water-conservation steps, including: declaring a local emergency, enacting escalating water rates that will produce a 5 percent reduction in water use and considering the availability of water in development decisions.

Swiftmud's governing board will be asked to make a decision on those recommendations at its meeting today. Slow to take decisive steps in the past, the board should not delay action this time. Here is why: Voluntary conservation measures have probably saved as much water as they can, yet surface water levels and the aquifer are at record low levels.

Who could doubt that the situation is dire? Apparently only public officials who don't have the courage to take painful but necessary steps to conserve water.

In reaction to Swiftmud's recommendations, Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala said the agency should let Tampa Bay Water violate its permit. "We have more than sufficient water (in the aquifer) to meet those needs," Latvala said. Yes, there is still water in the aquifer, but the more we use, the sooner lakes, ponds and wetlands dry up. The drought has also evaporated Pinellas Utilities Director Pick Talley's good sense. "Most of us in the business are saying Swiftmud is being a little regulatory in their outlook, not recognizing we have a record drought," he said. Swiftmud is a regulatory agency, and it's taking action because of the drought.

It's surprising Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand and County Administrator John Gallagher could keep a straight face when they protested the recommendation that county officials should consider the water supply when making development decisions. "Why are they strapping local governments with that responsibility?" asked Gallagher. Answer: Because the County Commission approves more and more development without a thought given to its impact on water.

Hillsborough County officials talk about water conservation, but the words will ring hollow if they continue to hinder development of new water sources. With a desalination plant and reservoir planned for southern Hillsborough County, they do bear much of the burden. But all Tampa Bay Water members are in this together. The long-range answers to the area's water problem are a combination of conservation, smart growth and new sources.

Nobody is going to enjoy strict water conservation measures, but when a crisis threatens one of our basic needs, we should all be willing to sacrifice. This is an emergency. Local governments should raise rates for water hogs who use more than their share. It is the only way to get them to cut back, and families who conserve will not have to pick up the tab for the greedy. Local governments should talk about water when they consider future development. Otherwise, our irreplaceable water supply will soon look like our overcrowded roads and schools and our overburdened sewer systems.

Swiftmud has been too lax in the past. Sensible conservation measures, even if they pinch, are overdue. Now, we'll see if the Swiftmud governing board has the courage that local officials lack.

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