It may have been one of the greatest photo opportunities of all time. Ed Turanchik, a Hillsborough County commissioner, climbed into a boat grounded on a dry lake bed in central Pasco.
"The plan is to cast for bass," said Turanchik. "And if that doesn't work, we'll dig for trout.''
The missing body of water? Big Fish Lake.
This was the 1990s, and the media stunt helped cement public opinion that excessive groundwater pumping had dried out lakes and wetlands in central and east Pasco and northern Hillsborough counties. It paved the way for local governments to put aside their parochial interests and — with some heavy lifting by state Sen. Jack Latvala and other legislators and financial incentive from the Southwest Florida Water Management District — join in creating Tampa Bay Water to provide drinking water to the region while reducing the reliance on groundwater pumping.
But nearly two decades after the peace treaty in the water wars, repairing the environmental degradation remains a work in progress. Tampa Bay Water recently agreed to sink a new well, withdraw ground water and pump it into Big Fish Lake on the Barthle Brothers Ranch.
And Pasco County and the water management district are partners in a $13.2 million plan to build 237 acres of wetlands on the nearby 4G Ranch to be filled with reclaimed water from Pasco's utility system. The project allows the county to dispose of 5 million gallons of reclaimed water each day while simultaneously providing recharge to the Floridan Aquifer.
The 4G Ranch sits directly between the Cross Bar and Cypress Creek well fields. The environmental damage there is well known. The ranch's former owner, Freeman F. Polk, filed high-profile objections when Tampa Bay Water's predecessor, West Coast Regional Water Supply, renewed its water-pumping permits for the well fields in the 1980s. Polk eventually sold the ranch to William Ted Phillips in 1993.
"They've seen the worst of the degradation,'' said Michael J. Carballa, the county's utilities engineering director.
Commissioner Ted Schrader called building and filling the wetlands with treated wastewater a "win-win for everybody.''
But, government critics on social media cast it as a $13 million favor to a well-connected campaign contributor, Phillips, because his company will build the wetlands and receive lease payments from the public agencies for the use of his land.
During the May 10 commission meeting, Commissioner Jack Mariano opposed the project, saying, among other things, the county didn't do its due diligence and instead should pipe the reclaimed water to Big Fish Lake. Mariano's plan called for further treatment of the water at the site, and then the use of the end product to replenish the lake. He also said a Hudson family was willing to sell its land to the county for use as a site to disperse reclaimed water.
Mariano's idea, however, didn't account for the cost of building an additional pipeline to carry 5 million gallons of reclaimed water to an alternate site. Projected expenses could be as high as $10 million, Carballa said during the commission meeting.
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That's not all Mariano failed to account for. He didn't explain his past support for the project, which dates to 2009, when the county began studying if it could dispose of its reclaimed water by replenishing Crews Lake. The water district asked the county to consider others sites in north-central Pasco as well, and the two agencies partnered in 2010 on a $98,000 feasibility study. Commissioners, including Mariano, voted unanimously on Sept. 9, 2010, to do the study.
A year ago, the project came into much clearer focus. The county had settled on 4G Ranch after looking at property from Crews Lake east to Interstate 75 and from State Road 54 north to the Hernando County line, said Carballa. The design work was 30 percent complete, and the projected price was publicized at $13 million. In May 2015, the county staff asked commissioners to authorize a $532,000 contract with a private engineering firm to complete the project design and permitting work.
There was just one question from the dais. It came from Mariano. He wondered if federal Restore Act money could be used. Possibly, Carballa said.
Mariano spoke two more words.
The vote was unanimous.
So, Mariano supported the conception, design and permitting of this project throughout the first half of this decade. He even made the motion to award the $532,000 engineering contract last year. He only became recalcitrant in 2016, an election year when he has two announced opponents.
Is he now trying to tell us his own fish tale when he balks at the reclaimed water not going to Big Fish Lake?
He says no. He says his role on the Tampa Bay Water board of directors, which he joined in April 2015, gave him a new perspective and he based his dissent on the best available information.
"That's what I did, and I'd do it again,'' he said in an interview last week.
Yet, he also acknowledged, after staffers met with representatives of Dais Analytic of Odessa, that his idea of treating reclaimed water right at Big Fish Lake was unworkable.
Of course, that raises another question. Mariano voted ''no'' based partly on his own idea that he later discovered to be implausible.
So, exactly who is it in county government who failed to do the due diligence?