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Tampa Bay Water fends off Tampa in water war skirmish — for now

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn (left), seen at a 2017 news conference, supported a bill which would have given the city the right to use its reclaimed water to supplement its own water supply. The bill was opposed by the regional water utility, Tampa Bay Water, which got its way when the bill failed to get past a House subcomittee in Tallahassee on Tuesday. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Jan. 30, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — The latest skirmish in Tampa Bay's old water wars ended quickly Tuesday as a bill to allow the City of Tampa to augment its own water supply using highly-treated reclaimed water fell victim to cross-bay politics — and intraparty squabbling.

For once, though, it was the Democrats who decided the fate of a bill in the Republican-dominated legislature.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Water wars redux: Could Tampa-backed bills doom Tampa Bay Water?

Tampa and the region's water authority, Tampa Bay Water, are on opposite sides of a bill that was taken up at the very end of the last meeting this session of the House Natural Resources and Public Lands Subcommittee.

Committee members didn't debate House minority leader Janet Cruz's House Bill 1303, which would give Tampa the right to use its reclaimed water to supplement its own water supply.

They adjourned without taking action, likely scuttling the plan this year.

Tampa Bay Water's legal counsel Pete Dunbar told the subcommittee that Tampa's plan endangered the utility's survival and would put its nearly $900 million bonded debt in jeopardy.

The agency was founded in 1998 by the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey and Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties to settle the region's litigious battle over its water supply.

St. Petersburg officials have hinted at more litigation if Tampa's plan moved forward. And during the subcommittee meeting, Rep Ben Diamond, a St. Petersburg Democrat, twice asked Dunbar to explain how the water authority is trying to accommodate Tampa's demands.

After the meeting, Cruz put a positive spin on the bill's likely demise.

"I think it sent a message to Tampa Bay Water that the city wants to move forward on this," she said.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn did not respond to a request for comment. A companion bill was filed in the Senate by Sen. Dana Young, a Tampa Republican, but now there appears to be no equivalent in the House.

Still, it was Democrats — Buckhorn, Cruz and Diamond — who jockeyed over the bill's fate.

Diamond, the only Tampa Bay area legislator on the subcommittee, said this outcome was for the best.

"We've created a regional solution and I am very concerned about the idea that we as a Legislature would come in and rewrite the agreement," Diamond said, adding that he understood Tampa wanted to move more quickly on its Tampa Augmentation Project, or "TAP."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Desalination plant, reservoir helping Tampa Bay endure Florida's fiery drought (April 18, 2017)

A Tampa Bay Water meeting to continue discussing the issue is scheduled for Feb. 19.

But, Cruz hinted at Buckhorn's reaction to the bill's likely demise. The legislation had been a high priority for the city this session.

"The mayor is exasperated," she said, "and the mayor knows what he is talking about."

Buckhorn has spoken of the plan as representing a "nice legacy" to his two terms as mayor of Florida's third-largest city.

The subcommittee saw both sides reprise arguments made earlier this month when Tampa Bay Water's board defeated Tampa's proposal by a 6-3 vote.

Tampa, represented by water director Chuck Weber, argued the city is treated differently than other members because it has to supply up to 82 million gallons of water per day before it can purchase water from Tampa Bay Water. By pumping the 50 million gallons of highly-treated reclaimed water that it currently dumps into Tampa Bay into the aquifer and reservoirs, Weber said, it can meet its own water needs and free up more water for other regional users.

Dunbar said Tampa's bid could unravel the regional compact that ended the 1990s water wars. The six members have quarreled over the years, he said, but have always resolved their differences.

"I believe they will be able to do so again," Dunbar said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow@SteveBousquet.

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