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  1. Opinion

Region could use more of the unity that built Tampa Bay Water 20 years ago

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the creation of Tampa Bay Water, one of the most successful regional initiatives in Florida, and perhaps in the nation, and one that ended more than 30 years of vexatious and costly water wars.

The story of Tampa Bay Water is a testament to elected officials taking charge, creating a shared vision and doing the hard work of bringing the vision to reality. In a period of just three years, we went from dysfunction to order, from division to unity. Indeed, the final vote to approve Tampa Bay Water was 196-2, counting all the legislators, commissioners, mayors and city council members that had to approve it. Many hands built this agreement.

To understand the magnitude of this accomplishment, we need to reset the stage. Twenty five years ago, our region was served by a patchwork of local water supply systems operated by six city and county governments. The supplies were connected by a pipeline system built and operated by a cooperative known as West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority.

In this system, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County owned permitted wellfields in Hillsborough and Pasco counties and were the beneficiaries of cheap wellfield water supplies located outside their own boundaries. Fast-growing Hillsborough and Pasco counties carried the burden of the impacts to their lakes and wetlands from excessive groundwater pumping as well as the economic burden of developing new and more expensive water supplies. Compounding it all, the structure of the authority gave veto power to each member government for any new supply project with which it disagreed, so nothing got done.

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An important first step was to bring fresh, locally elected leadership to the table. Ed Turanchik was appointed by Hillsborough County to the authority, St. Petersburg Mayor David Fisher decided to personally serve on the board, and Pinellas County put Steve Seibert on the board. They were joined by New Port Richey's Frank Parker and Commissioner Ed Collins from Pasco. At the same time, state Sen. Jack Latvala and state Rep. Sandy Safley took point on potential water legislation, while Roy Harrell, chairman of the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, jumped in to be a partner in framing solutions instead of an adversary.

We got off the treadmill of daily confrontation and took the time and invested the energy to engage in public visioning sessions. Elected officials on the board took the lead and responsibility for ending the water wars, and they built professional trust and personal friendships in the process. There was no delegation to consultants, attorneys or staff to fix the 30-year mess. But we needed a strong working group, so the chief administrator and utility director of each government joined the elected officials and fully participated in our deliberations. We were known as the "Group of 18." Six- to eight-hour monthly working sessions were not unusual over a three-year period.

But we faced a problem. No one would agree to create a regional water utility, with real power, without knowing what it intended to do. There simply would be no blank checks here. As a consequence, we created a 20-year master water plan that included a new array of drought-proof water sources while significantly reducing wellfield pumping. Novel solutions such as a desalination plan and huge off-line reservoir — both now implemented — were adopted, and wellfield pumping volumes in Hillsborough and Pasco were cut by over 50 million gallons per day. Despite the region's population growth in the past two decades, the reductions in groundwater pumping are still met today.

We also needed to solve the financial and political dilemma of buying out all existing supplies and building more expensive sources. The water management district played a critical role in getting over this hurdle, pledging to provide cooperative capital funding for the desalination plant and other alternative water sources. Former Congressman Bill Young from Pinellas, always a regional thinker and advocate, secured federal funds to help defray the cost of the off-line reservoir.

Our collective efforts paid off. The Florida Legislature and all member governments approved the Master Water Plan, which became the blueprint for our future and a reframed authority.

Everything we dreamed of, and worked to create, has worked, albeit with a few hiccups. Tampa Bay has reliable drinking water supplies that are largely drought-proof and that minimize impacts to the environment, all at a cost that is fair and reasonable. Tampa Bay can proudly count this as a singular regional success. As we try to address our region's other pressing issues, we might want to reflect on the lessons learned 20 years ago with Tampa Bay Water's success.

Steve Seibert is executive director of the Florida Humanities Council. Ed Turanchik is a Tampa attorney and candidate for mayor.