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Water Group tries to unite residents

As regional water agency Tampa Bay Water hunts for new water sources in eastern Pasco County, a new group is looking to unite water permit holders in a cooperative they say would hold control closer to home and possibly reap some profits.

Honey Rand of the Environmental PR Group is spokeswoman for the proposed coalition, dubbed "the Water Group."

Rand said the group expects to discuss plans, and potentially membership, with the Dade City Commission at its 5:30 p.m. meeting Tuesday. One commissioner, Vice Mayor Bill Dennis, said he likes what he has heard so far.

County Commissioner Ted Schrader, an East Pasco resident and member of Tampa Bay Water's governing board, said he also sees value in an East Pasco cooperative and will ask a county attorney to attend Tuesday's public proposal.

Schrader said he became interested earlier this week when he learned Tampa Bay Water _ a regional authority charged with providing public water in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties _ has been inquiring with large water permit holders about buying excess capacity. An easement owned by the city of St. Petersburg along old railroad property west of San Antonio could provide a pipeline connection to East Pasco, he said.

Tampa Bay Water spokeswoman Michelle Robinson said Thursday that East Pasco is on the agency's long-range development list. In the past six months, the agency made inquiries towater permit holders with unused capacity, she said.

She said the agency is obligated by its charter to seek water for the entire region.

"Clearly, we're looking for environmentally sound, cost effective ways to serve our members," Robinson said. "Others may see this as a business opportunity."

Rand said the Water Group expects to sell its water exclusively to Tampa Bay Water. The advantage of the cooperative, she said, is it would allow local control in protection from overpumping.

Having Dade City on board would make the cooperative stronger as well as providing income for the city and ensuring it has available water in East Pasco when the city expands, she said.

Schrader said he is interested in the Water Group's proposal.

"If you have a local cooperative controlling those quantities, then you have some local control over it," he said.

"You also have the ability to have some of those permitees to sell some of their excess quantities, which may encourage them to keep their property in a rural land use, rather than developing."

Rand said several water-industry professionals helped found the Water Group, including water attorney Doug Manson, who has represented a bottled water company and the Wiregrass Ranch; Jack Vogel, who worked with the Schrader family in a land deal involving Southwest Florida Water Management District easements; Tampa attorney Buddy Blain, a veteran of water issues since the 1980s; and Bill Blanchard, who has experience in the utilities industry and is son of Bob Blanchard, a Tampa banker and businessman known in East Pasco for hosting the annual steeplechase horse race at his 1,700-acre ranch outside Dade City.

Rand said some water permit holders have also signed on, but she did not have the names available Thursday afternoon.

Michael Molligan, spokesman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, said his agency wouldn't regulate the proposed cooperative any differently than it would oversee water pumping and sales by an individual landholder. But, he said, all water production is subject to Swiftmud's rules.

Rand said the Water Group's principles are sound, and its mission is to learn from what happened in the past, where critics say overpumping in central Pasco harmed the environment and damaged property.

"What Dade City and East Pasco now have is the opportunity to learn from the past," she said. "Could we do this if it wasn't the right thing to do? No. People wouldn't stand for it."