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Is Tampa Bay about to enter Water War Two?

Tempers flashed Monday at a Tampa Bay Water board meeting over Tampa’s plan to convert highly treated wastewater to drinking water.
Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda (left) clashed with St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice (right) clashed at Monday's meeting of Tampa Bay Water's governing board. [Times files]
Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda (left) clashed with St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice (right) clashed at Monday's meeting of Tampa Bay Water's governing board. [Times files]
Published Aug. 19, 2019
Updated Aug. 19, 2019

CLEARWATER ― The kumbaya sing-along on both sides of Tampa Bay appears to be over. The latest brawl? Water.

At a Tampa Bay Water board meeting Monday, sparring between St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice and Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda got particularly intense. Rice accused Tampa of ducking transparency. Miranda compared Rice’s desire to seek outside legal advice to a $1 million divorce fight.

Board chairman Sandy Murman framed the bad blood as a threat to the Tampa Bay region.

“I can’t really hold back anymore. I’ll be honest with y’all: We are teetering on the edge of water war," said Murman, a Hillsborough County commissioner.

She said the lack of trust between members governments was endangering the mission of an agency formed in 1999 to put an end to the water grabs and squabbles that convulsed the Tampa Bay region two decades ago.

Murman has supported Tampa’s proposal to spend $350 million to pump 50 million gallons a day of highly-treated wastewater into the Floridan aquifer to further clean it before using it for drinking water. She urged opponents like Rice and Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers to allow the city to continue testing and research.

Tampa pulled its request for an agreement among Tampa Bay Water’s six member governments after sustained opposition from Pinellas elected officials.

At issue, Monday was whether the water agency would continue to pay attorney John Nickerson to provide legal advice.

Nickerson wrote a memo earlier this month stating that Tampa doesn’t have the legal right to proceed with its project, which critics deride as ‘toilet to tap.' Tampa’s attorney pushed back, saying Nickerson, who was involved in the founding of the regional utility after the bitter battles over water supplies between Pasco and Pinellas counties in the 1990s, ignored an exemption written into the original agreement that allows Tampa to “augment” its water supply.

That’s what the conversion plan is designed to do, Tampa officials say. Rice and many environmental activists say the project is too risky, She has hailed Nickerson’s opinion as a “nail in the coffin” for Tampa’s plan.

Nickerson later wrote the board to say his Tampa firm couldn’t provide any more advice on the project because of a possible conflict of interest. The firm serves as a bond counsel to Tampa.

But on Monday, Rice made a motion to ask him provide analysis on other legal questions. She withdrew her motion after it was clear she didn’t have the votes, but did so with a parting shot.

Rice said Tampa withdrew its proposal rather than provide more details earlier this summer, squelching an option to get $1.6 million in funding from the agency for the project the city dubs the “Tampa Augmentation Project” or TAP. And she decried Tampa’s objection to using Nickerson for additional analysis.

“There’s a pattern here. When Tampa didn’t like the way things were going with the $1.6 million that we offered, they took it off the table when we asked for more transparency. And, now, alas, that Mr. Nickerson gave us an opinion that Tampa didn’t like now they’re using a legal technicality to block us from asking the same attorney any more questions," she said.

That got Miranda’s dander up. The Tampa council member, who has been involved in water issues for decades, suggested St. Petersburg was lawyer shopping for an opinion backing its position. He also predicted another water war and reminded the other member governments, which includes Pasco County and New Port Richey, that Tampa is largely self-sufficient in its water supply.

He compared the current impasse to a $1 million divorce of a friend that centered over which spouse got the family dog.

“He never wanted the dog. He just didn’t want her to have it,” Miranda said.

Other board members pleaded for some sort of reset.

New Port Richey Mayor Rob Marlowe said the group needed to put aside the bickering and figure out how to increase the region’s water supply to meet expected high rates of growth.

“It’s not going to get better on its own,” Marlowe said.