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Tampa Bay once had water wars. More Pasco pumping could be coming

The regional water utility eyes groundwater as a possible answer to growing demand.
 
Tampa Bay Water's board of directors is considering seven proposals to expand the region's drinking water supply in 2033. Two of the proposals include taking more groundwater from Pasco County.
Tampa Bay Water's board of directors is considering seven proposals to expand the region's drinking water supply in 2033. Two of the proposals include taking more groundwater from Pasco County. [ Tampa Bay Water ]
Published Aug. 21, 2023|Updated Aug. 22, 2023

Tampa Bay’s regional water utility is looking in old places for new drinking water.

As it seeks more water to meet a growing population over the next 10 years, Tampa Bay Water is considering tapping water beneath the ground in Pasco County to help quench the region’s thirst.

The utility is considering building a new wellfield in northeastern Pasco, or else seeking permission from the state water management district to increase pumping at existing wellfields. If either is approved, it would reverse the 25-year trend of limiting withdrawals in Pasco County because of lower lake levels and dry wetlands from previous overpumping.

Those environmental concerns triggered widespread litigation and spurred the state and local governments to form Tampa Bay Water in 1998 to replace the previous regional utility, the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority. The Southwest Florida Water Management District has said the region’s lakes and wetlands have recovered from the prior pumping damage.

“We don’t want to go through what happened in years past,” Pasco Commissioner Seth Weightman said Monday after the utility’s governing board was briefed on the projects.

The proposed groundwater pumping accounts for two of the seven projects tentatively shortlisted by Tampa Bay Water to be considered for two-year feasibility studies beginning next year. A final decision on which projects will be pursued is not expected until 2027.

In interviews with the Tampa Bay Times, the utility’s other board members from Pasco County said they were open-minded about studying more groundwater pumping.

“I think that’s a possibility because we’ve had (environmental) recovery here in Pasco County since we’ve lowered the pumping,” said Pasco Commissioner Ron Oakley. “I’m OK as long as it’s environmentally safe.”

“We’re going to need the wells,” said New Port Richey Mayor Chopper Davis, pointing to the potential for thousands of new homes in central and eastern Pasco County. “That’s probably where most of the water’s going to be needed.”

But the opinion was not universal. Judy Williams, formerly of Lutz and now living in upstate New York, was one of a group of citizen activists, dubbed the water warriors, who fought for reduced groundwater pumping.

“No. That’s insane,” Williams said when told of the groundwater study. “It makes me gag.”

“It’s the same hydrology,” she said. “It’s like putting a straw into a glass of water. You may be drinking out of the bottom, but you’re going to see the effects of the level lowered at the top.”

Other ideas being considered by Tampa Bay Water include treating and storing water from Little Manatee River and Bull Frog Creek in south Hillsborough, a canal downstream from Lake Tarpon in north Pinellas or the Alafia River in Hillsborough. Two other proposals have been studied previously but not approved — expanding the existing desalination plant and injecting reclaimed water underground to offset water taken from a new wellfield in south Hillsborough.

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Tampa Bay Water’s most recent data showed it pumps 86 million gallons of well water daily as part of the 202 million gallons of drinking water it delivers each day to 2.5 million people in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties and the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey.

Twenty-five years ago, the utility’s permit allowed it to pump more than twice its current rate from 11 wellfields. As Tampa Bay Water developed other drinking water sources — a desalination plant, reservoir and treated river water — it reduced its groundwater pumping to current levels under a permit granted by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The current 10-year permit runs through 2032.

Warren Hogg, Tampa Bay Water’s chief science officer, said the three primary wellfields in Pasco County — Cypress Creek, Cross Bar and Starkey — previously pumped 73 millions gallons of water daily, a figure now reduced to approximately 30 million gallons a day.

The proposals call for a new wellfield to withdraw up to 9 million gallons a day of fresh or brackish water from northeast Pasco or asking the water district for permission to increase pumping from current wellfields by 10 million gallons a day. Seeking a new permit is attractive because it includes no upfront capital costs, while other projects carried price estimates ranging from $120 million to $1.3 billion.

“We just don’t want to give any of that (environmental recovery) back,” warned Hogg, who said there were no guarantees the water management district would authorize the plan.

The board could approve multiple projects as the utility seeks to produce up to 20 million gallons a day of new water by 2033.