National News

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

Posted January 31, 2018 9:26 a.m. EST

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 a bill's fate in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

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 HB 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, D-St. Petersburg, 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 return a request for comment. A companion bill was filed in the Senate by Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, 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 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," he said, adding that he understood Tampa wanted to move more quickly on its Tampa Augmentation Project.

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 that the city is treated differently from 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.