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Commissioners squash rumors about Pinellas’ drinking water
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Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Pinellas County Commission Vice-chair Susan Latvala, who also is chair of Tampa Bay Water, favors selling Crossbar and Al Bar ranches to Pasco County. Commissioner Norm Roche favors keeping the land to preserve Pinellas County’s ability to produce its own water into the future.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners are concerned about an email going around warning citizens that the drinking water “is endangered.”

The email is perhaps another sign of the growing disagreement between commissioners over a possible sale of county-owned land in Pasco County. The commission continued to squabble over water rights and future needs at a June 10 budget work session.

The latest source of contention is an email with the subject “drinking water alert” from Seminole resident Tom Rask, who is running for the District 6 seat on the county commission in the upcoming election. The body of Rask’s message includes the headline, “ALERT – Your Drinking Water Is Endangered!”

It goes on to say, “With no notice and no public input, Pinellas County is now seeking to sell our drinking water source. The drinking water wells are located on 12,500 acres in Pasco County and were acquired for good reason during the so-called ‘water wars’ in decades past. Commissioner Janet Long recently and suddenly changed her mind on this critical issue and joined Commissioners Ken Welch, Susan Latvala and Charlie Justice in seeking to sell our land.

“Proponents of the sale say that the cash is needed, but such a one-time infusion of limited spending dollars is not sustainable and will not solve our ongoing fiscal challenges. The income is literally a drop in the bucket and for that we would lose control over our drinking water supply.

“Some have claimed we don’t need this 12,500 acre water source because we have an agreement with the regional water authority (Tampa Bay Water). However, the 24-year water war between Florida, Georgia and Alabama shows that water agreements are not worth the paper they are written on. This 24-year war continues to this day.”

Back to the beginning

Compared to more inland areas of the state, the small coastal peninsula that makes up Pinellas County has limitations on quantity and quality of its drinking water supply. Due to its geography, the county is dependent on outside sources.

In 1970, wellfields located in Hillsborough and Pasco produced nearly 47 percent of the county’s drinking water and by 1977, the dependency on outside sources had grown to nearly 53 percent.

So-called “water wars” were common between Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties and even private landowners. Unregulated pumping of groundwater from the Florida Aquifer resulted in the death of cypress trees, loss of wetlands, ponds, lakes and other water bodies dependent on ground water. Local governments struggled to provide adequate supplies of drinking water to support the region’s fast-growing population.

To help satisfy Pinellas County’s needs, the Utilities Department purchased Crossbar Ranch in 1976. The ranch includes about 8,000 acres of land in central Pasco County located east of U.S. 41 and north of State Road 52. Seventeen active wellhead sites are located on 6.41 acres of the property. The wells began producing in 1980.

Al-Bar Ranch and its 4,100 acres adjoining Crossbar was added to Utilities’ land portfolio in 1990. Utilities paid $11.1 million for both parcels.

The county sold the wells and water rights on Crossbar in the mid-1990s as part of a deal that created Tampa Bay Water. Pinellas also sold Tampa Bay Water its wellfields on the Eldridge Wilde property in 1998. In return, the Utilities Department received $140 million.

Tampa Bay Water became a reality in 1998. The nonprofit utility supplies wholesale drinking water to Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, as well as the cities of New Port Richey, St. Petersburg and Tampa. The utility uses a mix of groundwater, surface water and seawater to supply its member governments.

As part of a 40-year agreement, Pinellas County cannot produce its own drinking water unless Tampa Bay Water fails to meet the long-term needs of the six member governments. The agreement also states that if for some reason Tampa Bay Water would cease to exist, which some officials say is highly unlikely, its assets would be divided among its members with each getting a portion of each asset.

Today’s water war

Pinellas County had been poised to sell the property to a state-run program called Florida Forever in 2008. The ranches were added to Florida Forever’s acquisition list, but the recession and lack of funds put an end to the sale.

Pasco County approached the county about buying the land in 2013, using Penny for Pasco funds dedicated to improving that county’s environmental lands. On Aug. 13, 2013, county commissioners talked about Pasco County’s offer.

Commissioners Janet Long, Norm Roche and Karen Seel, who was vice-chair at the time, were opposed to selling the land. Commission Chair Ken Welch spoke in favor of the sale as did Commissioner Susan Latvala, chairwoman of Tampa Bay Water, who has been a longtime proponent of selling the land. Commissioner John Morroni was absent.

After a lengthy discussion, Long suggested that the commission visit the ranches before making a final decision, which they did.

Pasco County made another bid for the ranches during the Jan. 28 regular commission meeting. The consensus was not to sell, but no official vote was taken. Selling the land came back before the commission Feb. 4 and after another lengthy discussion, the majority agreed it wasn’t the time to sell the land.

Latvala and Welch continued to support the sale. Commissioner Charlie Justice wanted to know what it was worth. He advocated asking Pasco County to pay for an appraisal. Long, Roche, Morroni and Seel strongly opposed giving up the property.

The matter came back to the table during budget talks held off-camera in the commissioner’s conference room May 22. According to Roche, who is spearheading a call to action against the sale, Latvala suggested selling the land as a way to raise money to pay for the larger-than-expected budget requests coming in from constitutional officers.

Long changed sides at that meeting, Roche said, creating a majority willing to breathe life back into a potential sale. As of June 14, minutes from that meeting had not been posted on the Clerk of the Court’s website.

Seel pointed out during the June 10 work session that even though the meeting took place outside of the commission assembly room, where it is streamed live on PCCTV, it was still open to the public. She said a reporter from the Tribune had attended.

Roche began a public campaign against the potential sale almost immediately. He called a press conference, which also was attended by Morroni, on May 27. Some commissioners believe that Rask’s email can be traced to Roche’s campaign to preserve county ownership of the land.

“People are in a panic about our water supply,” Long said.

County Attorney Jim Bennett said he is preparing a memo that explains how Tampa Bay Water’s assets, which include wellfields and water rights on the Pasco County land, would be divided should the utility cease to exist.

Most likely, owning the land won’t give Pinellas a better chance of getting those wellfields or water rights, he said. Even if it did, the county would need a permit from Southwest Florida Water Management District to pump more water than is currently allowed to have enough to supply the need.

Latvala said the county is “very lucky to have what we have” because we had a commission that “many years ago looked to the future when we had no water within our borders to find a way to partner for our future and form Tampa Bay Water.”

Roche said his campaign to keep the land had nothing to do with Tampa Bay Water.

“I want Pinellas County to remain self-sufficient for generations to come,” he said.

“I can’t believe we would want those wells,” Latvala said. “We would want part of the resources to sustain us. We would want to own part of the desalination plant, reservoir or surface water plant. They are more sustainable than the wellfields.”

Seel said the controversy was generating many questions from the public.

“No fault implied or intended, but we voted at a work session by consensus,” Seel said.

She prefers that the matter be placed on a regular agenda, “so we can walk through this together so all are clear and the information is disclosed.”

Commissioner Ken Welch agreed that “technically” Seel was right.

“It is not usually our way of working,” he said.

Still, he criticized Roche’s calling of a press conference.

“I’m disappointed in that,” he said.

He also expressed concern about Rask’s email that says drinking water is endangered.

“That’s scary to our citizens,” he said.

Latvala agreed.

“The conversation is scary, such a lack of understanding,” she said.

“This has nothing to do with Tampa Bay Water,” Roche repeated. “It’s about our future needs.”

Morroni said selling the land had been voted on in the past when the matter was on the agenda.

“We voted not to sell,” he said.

Now, guidance is given (to staff) to ask Pasco to get an appraisal, which is opposite to the vote given, he added.

“It’s mainly a fact-finding mission,” Long said, who insists more information is needed before another vote is taken.

She also suggested that the commission ask county Communications to “write an article” explaining everything to the public.

Welch said part of the information needed is what the land is worth. Interim County Administrator Mark Woodard said talking to Pasco County was on his to do list.

“I have not talked to them,” he said. “I believe they are working on it.”

Seel agreed to add the matter to a regular meeting agenda as soon as information about the appraisal is available.
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