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Forum opposes tapping 3 wells

Pinellas County should not pump water from the Brooker Creek Preserve to irrigate two private golf courses.

That's the recommendation this week from the Environmental Science Forum, an advisory group created by County Administrator Steve Spratt.

By a vote of 9 to 4, the forum's members said no to reopening three old wells in the preserve to provide water for East Lake Woodlands golf courses during times of drought.

Pinellas County Utilities has said pumping from the wells would leave more reclaimed water for homeowners.

But most members of the forum said the proposal sends the wrong message as conserving water becomes more and more critical.

"One of the major cons to pumping from these wells is the signal it sends in regard to this being a preserve," said forum member Ann Paul, regional coordinator of Audubon of Florida.

"I agree," said Barbara Hoffman of the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve. "It sets a really bad precedent."

The forum's co-chair, Darden Rice of the National Sierra Club, voted with the majority after considering the complicated issue.

"I have wrestled with this and I have done my best to pore through the science," she said. "There's just no way around the fact that the public cares very deeply about the preserve."

But four forum members thought the pumping would have little scientific effect and did not oppose it, especially if wetlands and uplands were closely monitored.

Bruce Hasbrouck, environmental services director for Faller, Davis and Associates of Tampa, gave a report from a forum subcommittee that had been charged with looking at alternatives to pumping in the preserve. Hasbrouck, who worked on a wetlands restoration project in the preserve, was the subcommittee's chairman.

The alternatives the group looked at included using water from Lake Tarpon or stormwater, water from new wells and used water from showers, sinks and washing machines at the golf course and at East Lake Woodlands homes.

"We believe that pumping out of the preserve has the least environmental impact of any of the alternatives we explored," said Hasbrouck. And he said the pumping would be monitored so that any adverse effects could then be mitigated.

Forum co-chairperson Holly Greening, senior scientist with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, was one of the four who did not recommend against pumping. Though she agreed with the project on scientific grounds, she said she could empathize with those who rejected the project on the grounds that it sets a bad policy precedent.

In a public comment period, Dave Kantz, conservation chairman of St. Petersburg Audubon, who recently resigned from the forum, suggested that the best alternative for now would be to leave the golf courses on reclaimed water.

The group submitted their recommendations, pros and cons to the county at the close of the meeting. And Spratt is scheduled to report on the forum to the County Commission Tuesday.

For now at least, Pinellas County Utilities is proceeding with a request to pump from the wells. Utilities will submit additional information to Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, by Jan. 5, 2007.

"I just don't think they understand our project and what benefit it will have for our reclaimed water system," said Dave Slonena, county hydrologist in charge of the project. "The bottom line is that the county is going to benefit from what we are doing here."

Times staff writer Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

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