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Storms starts moratorium buzz

A two-sentence e-mail from Hillsborough Commissioner Ronda Storms' aide has sent jitters throughout the business community.

The e-mail asks commissioners to schedule a discussion Wednesday about a moratorium, a ban on new construction of homes and businesses, in response to the county's overtaxed water supply.

The request appears to be a reaction to the refrain from citizens: If I can't water my lawn, then why do you keep approving more development that will drain the aquifer even further?

Storms, however, has made it clear in interviews and in writing that she's not really interested in a moratorium at all, though she says she hasn't made up her mind. Her main goal: to start a public debate she thinks will show that the region's water supply overseers are the villains in an ongoing "battle" over water _ not commissioners, and certainly not her.

"I personally want all the parties to lay all of their cards on the table," she said. "In my view, we should have a public hearing and let all the information come out."

But what if, by opening that window, commissioners vote to approve a moratorium?

"It'll never happen," Storms said. "It'll never happen."

Given the invitation, however, Commission Chairwoman Pat Frank said she may now propose some form of limited moratorium in south-central Hillsborough County. That area _ including Brandon, Sun City Center, Gibsonton and Riverview _ is disconnected from the region's main water system and until recently was close to exceeding pumping limits.

Frank said it may be time to consider a temporary moratorium until the area can be connected to a new Brandon wellfield, which happens next year.

"I think it's a healthy discussion," Frank said. "I'm glad she brought it up."

In the meantime, pro-business groups squirm. In a blistering letter to commissioners Monday, Apollo Beach attorney Michael Peterson, president of the SouthShore Alliance, accused commissioners of toying with the economy.

Peterson said the moratorium talk is having an impact. Already, he has had to tell clients to advise investors in prospective business deals about the possible moratorium.

"If there isn't a desire to impose a moratorium, then we shouldn't be playing with it," Peterson said.

Arlene Waldron, Storms' leading Republican opponent for election this year, called the move emblematic of the commissioner's style.

"Her uncooperative nature, I think, is what has gotten us in this situation anyway," Waldron said. "Using this as a strategy is just a further example of her ineffective leadership."

Ronnie Duncan, chairman the Southwest Florida Water Management District board, one of the objects of Storms' scorn, also questioned the timing. He said that six commission seats are up for election, and Commissioner Chris Hart is running for Tampa mayor.

"It has made for a license to talk about water in a political environment," Duncan said. "I don't think our citizens want it to be made a political issue. I think they want it solved."

He nevertheless said he welcomed the discussion.

It was Swiftmud's order last month that prompted Storms' e-mail. Despite above-average rains, the south-central wellfield was in danger of exceeding its 24.1-million gallon a day pumping limit in July, according to projections.

The Swiftmud board had voted to impose daily fines on Hillsborough County if the commissioners didn't do something to avert a water crisis. Commissioners reluctantly responded by imposing a watering ban on existing lawns through August for homeowners in the district. The county also kicked off an intensive public education campaign with stepped-up enforcement.

Heavy rains helped, too, and pumping has fallen in the area to about 15-million gallons a day.

Still, residents are furious, as they've indicated in letters to commissioners. Storms is angry herself, as she indicated in an open letter to the Bloomingdale Gazette, an east-county newspaper.

In the letter, Storms outlined her case against Swiftmud and Tampa Bay Water, the regional water utility that serves Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.

Some of her contentions:

Swiftmud doesn't penalize the city of Tampa for wasting treated wastewater that could be used for irrigation instead of selling it to Hillsborough.

The agency is also pressuring commissioners to charge residents more for reclaimed water and limit their use if it _ though the county attracted users with low rates and unlimited watering.

Most of Tampa Bay Water's upcoming projects, including a new desalination plant and reservoir in Storms' south county district, will do little to help its immediate neighbors. Instead, they will ease pumping in northern Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

And, south county's problems are linked to growth, so demands on water can't be solved by conservation.

In short, Hillsborough County, and particularly her district, is supplying the region's water and is still being made out to be the bad guy, Storms claimed.

"Swiftmud might enjoy their present ability to twist our arms, but Hillsborough County will use every legal tool available to prevail in this battle," she wrote.

Swiftmud responded with its own letter, denying it was a bully and saying it is doing what it can to protect the environment and water supplies for the future.

The letter stated that the agency has received more than 3,200 complaints from private well owners since 1985 about their supply and quality of water due to overpumping. And it is spending $257-million for a new desalination plant, reservoir and other measures to decrease the need for groundwater pumping, money that comes in part from other counties.

More than anything, though, the agency says that Hillsborough County has been slow to adopt water restrictions as stringent as their partner counties. And it does a poor job of enforcing the rules it has.

"If we know the police are not around, we tend to go a little faster than when we know the police are right around the corner," Duncan said. "The Hillsborough commission has just not taken that leadership position, and Ronda is one of those people who, in my opinion, has failed to step up to the plate and take that leadership position."

_ Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or variansptimes.com.

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